The Sound of Taps

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 26, 2012

“Taps is the music of the soldier’s soul.”
Jonathan W. Pierce

I am always amazed at the relationship between sound and memory.  Much like the old science experiment between Pavlov and his dog (does that ring a bell?), the influence of sound goes much deeper than our ears.  It penetrates to the very depths of our soul.

Just the words “I love you” can turn a routine day into one with great meaning.  A million memories are triggered by the sounds of an old dinner bell or the horn of an antique car or even the crowing of a rooster.

Whether it is the sound of our national anthem before a game or the singing of “Happy Birthday” to a loved one, or joining a group of friends to sing an old hymn, music speaks to us at many levels.

Over ten years ago I was walking out of the Mason Chapel on our campus with Pastor Tommy Reid and I said to him, “What we need on our campus is a set of carillon bells to call our students to Chapel, classes, etc.”  Later that day he said he knew someone who could help us get those bells.  I still love those bells today and when alumni return they trigger a million memories. 

But few sounds stop us in our tracks as deeply as the poignant sound of the 24 notes of “Taps” being played on a bugle.  Jonathan W. Pierce said, “There is a tangible feeling that soldiers, veterans, and family members share at the playing of ‘Taps.’  The uninitiated may call it romantic, but ‘Taps’ doesn’t call to mind, heart and soul, the amorous feelings of love.  It evokes rather poignant feelings of fealty, brotherhood and sisterhood.”

Pierce goes on to say, “Those who have never stood in harm’s way may never fully understand the allegiant bond, the sense of loss, not the appreciative acceptance of valor offered by those who have lived and served in defending our nation.  ‘Taps’ envelops us in the quiet; our emotions rise with its notes and fall with those by which we say goodbye.  The notes themselves… speak volumes to our souls.”

Considerable debate surrounds the origin of the song.  One urban legend involved a Union soldier during the Civil War who found the dead body of a Confederate soldier and dragged him back to his camp, only to discover the body was his son’s.  The father, Captain Robert Ellizombe, supposedly found the notes to “Taps” in his son’s back pocket, and requested that the song be played at the boy’s funeral.

Tom Day, founder of Bugles Across America, a national group of “Taps” players, said the story has lived on with the help of the internet and because of sentimental feelings toward the old south.

The actual origin of “Taps” seems to have been created in 1862 by General Dan Butterfield, a member of the Union Army’s 83rd brigade.  Butterfield created the song because he thought “Extinguish Lights” was too formal.  Numerous reputable witnesses confirm Butterfield’s role including Oliver Norton, the bugler who first performed the tune.

I recently read a humorous story of a grandmother who took her four year old grandson, Jeremiah, to the Leavenworth National Cemetery where her husband is buried when they heard the sound of a bugle.

“What’s that?” asked Jeremiah.  “‘Taps.’ They play it at a soldier’s burial,” the grandmother explained.  A minute later they heard the honorary rifle solute.  With eyes bugged out, Jeremiah asked, “Did they shoot him?”

“‘Taps’ has risen above the matter of authorship,” Jonathan W. Pierce observed.  “It is now a matter of ownership.  ‘Taps’ belongs to those who give their last full measure of devotion to the defense of the nation and its vital interests, and to those who offer and have offered that devotion and yet live.”  The sound of “Taps” is for all of us who love and serve the United States of America.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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