Bugle calls are short traditional pieces of music played on a bugle, a musical instrument which for centuries has been used by the armed forces of many countries as a means of communication. The bugle can be heard over long distances, and the sound can be heard in a noisy environment (such as during a battle), so it is a highly effective way to communicate simple information and orders to a large number of people. Although such a method of communication is perhaps no longer required by today's armies, bugle calls are still used by many forces, though in many cases it has become part of traditional rituals with a particular role during ceremonial occasions.
The Bugle is a simple instrument usually constructed of a loop (or two) of brass, played through a mouthpiece and with the bell facing away from the player. It looks and sounds similar to a trumpet, though without the valves found on a modern trumpet. The lack of valves on a traditional bugle means that the instrument can only play the notes of a single harmonic scale, so its melodies are simple tunes using only a few notes. Although the harmonic series can be extended, for simplicity most bugle calls consist of at most 5 different notes. In the key of C this would be C-G-C-E-G from the lowest to the highest, and these are the same notes which form a major chord so any sequence of these notes will be tuneful. (More about this connection in "The Psychology of Bugle Calls" below.)
If bugle calls are played by a modern instrument with valves (such as a trumpet), then the valves can be kept in any fixed position to establish a fundamental note and its related harmonic series. Although the convention is that sheet music for bugle calls is notated in the key of "C", the music can be played in whatever key is convenient for a given instrument. Most of the example bugle calls listed below have been created as though played on an instrument in "G" so they play a fourth lower than notated. The exceptions are the "Deguello" (due to its lower range) and the extract from the "Leonore Overture" both of which use a Trumpet in B-flat.
Trumpet or Horn-like instruments have been used for millenia, with early references in the old testament e.g. Joshua's Army marching towards the Walls of Jericho blowing their Trumpets. There is also evidence that similar instruments such as the "buccina" were used by Roman Legions. More modern historical usage is documented by the cavalry, infantry and navy of several European countries, and standardisation took place across the regiments of the British Army during the 17th century. It seems likely that many bugle calls have evolved over time though some longer more complex calls (such as the Last Post) may have been composed, with some sources suggesting that Joseph Haydn may have composed some calls. The French, British and Prussian forces at the Battle of Waterloo all used musicians among their armies including buglers, and a battered bugle was recovered after the battle and later used as part of the 200th anniversary memorial events in June 2015. American forces adopted and further developed a number of bugle calls from the British and French equivalents, and there are variations among the military forces across the globe.
There are some similarities in the history of Bugles and Horns. Horns were originally animal horns and traditionally were used during hunting activities. In both cases, early instruments had no valves and so played notes within the given harmonic series. The main difference is that horns retained their curved shape even when constructed from brass, sometimes lightly curved and at other times the tubing is fully curved to make one or more circles, with the bell pointing away from the player at an angle. Both instruments served a similar purpose of communicating over distances, and in both hunting and military contexts a variety of calls were used to communicate different signals.
It is worth noting that there are other musical instruments with a significant military history. In addition to the bugle, there is the shrill sound of the Fife (similar to a piccolo), and the penetrating sound of the Bagpipes (used by the regiments of Scotland and other countries). Many other wind instruments have been used in a military context because they can be carried easily. The drum has also served an important military purpose for many centuries (or more accurately millenia). Its regular beats can be used to accompany marching and other ordered regular activities, and indeed the speed of an advance can be indicated by the frequency of drum beats.
Bugle calls are signals or commands to troops denoting a range of scheduled and unscheduled events. In camp, bugle calls mark key events during the day - with some of the most important being events such as wake up, assemble, dismiss, meal times or lights out. In battle, bugle calls signal instructions to be carried out, with key commands being things like charge, recall, advance, etc. Bugle calls need to be suitable for their intended purpose. Urgent calls need to be short and easily recognised in order to get an immediate response. Some of these calls may be repeated a few times to ensure that everyone has got the message. However other activities such as those of a ceremonial nature can afford to have longer bugle calls.
There are many different bugle calls used or formerly used by many different forces across the world. What we have included on mfiles is a selection of bugle calls which the average civilian may have heard before or can readily relate to. In all cases the following links will take you to the sheet music page for the bugle call, and from there you can download pdf, midi and mp3 versions as you prefer.
Bugle Calls have had a subtle but significant influence on music and popular culture in general. As an example of their influence on classical music, see the last two bugle calls in the above list. Tchaikovsky was on holiday in Rome during the winter of 1879-80 where he composed his work called "Capriccio Italien" which incorporates folk songs and other sounds the composer heard while in Rome. There was a cavalry barracks next door to his hotel and he transcribed a bugle call which he heard every morning coming from the barracks. This bugle call is used as the opening bars of Capriccio Italien and here transcribed into standard bugle notation.
One of the earlier versions of an Overture for Beethoven's Opera Fidelio is his Leonore Overture No.3 composed in 1806. In the middle of this is a trumpet call which is very much like a bugle call, only the notes are not quite from a single harmonic series as would normally be played on a Bugle. Here is the Trumpet Call and as directed by the composer, it is usually played by a Trumpet off-stage so that it sounds distant. Similarly there are Trumpet calls similar to Bugle calls in other classical works such as the 1st movement of Gustav Mahler's 3rd Symphony.
In a number of armies, words have been added (mostly informally) by soldiers, to help them remember the meaning of the calls. These phrases have from time to time appeared in popular songs. A good example of this is "Come to the cook house door, boys, come to the cook house door." which signifies Meal Time in UK armies. The words "Come to the cook house door boys" and a mention of "reveille" were included in the war-time song "Oh, it's a Lovely War" in 1917. The U.S version of the Reveille call is associated with the words "You gotta get up, you gotta get up, you gotta get up this morning.". Similarly Irving Berlin incorporated the words "You gotta get up this morning." in his 1918 song "Oh how I hate to get up in the morning" which the song-writer later used in his musical "This is the Army". This initially appeared on Broadway during World War II and was then made into a morale-boosting film.
While these examples are very explicit in their references to Bugle call lyrics, other popular songs may imitate or suggest bugle calls in general or make references to bugles and bugle players. For example the song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" also written by Irving Berlin (in 1911) includes in its chorus the lyrics "They can play a bugle call like you never heard before. So natural that you want to go to war.", while the notes of the music suggest a bugle call at that point in the song. A later example is the song "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" by Don Raye and Hughie Prince (written in 1941), which was a big hit for the Andrews Sisters during World War II.
The "Bugle Call Rag" is an instrumental piece dating from 1922. Despite its name it is not a true rag but one of the great Jazz standards, recorded and frequently arranged by many jazz artists and bands over the years. Though barely recognisable as the same song, this is quite popular with Bluegrass bands and appeared in this format on the soundtrack to the film "Deliverance". Here are some videos on YouTube to illustrate all these examples:
Many movies use real bugle calls for historically appropriate purposes, for example in military or war movies, or by the U.S. Cavalry in many Western films, particularly the Charge when they come riding to the rescue. This form of using music in films is called "source music" or "diegetic" meaning that the music comes from something in the film itself that is typically visible or implied on the screen. In contrast to this is the "background music" or "film score" or "underscore" which accompanies the film but is not directly connected to the events of the film. The score of a film is usually recorded and added to the film in post-production and its purpose is to provide an emotional connection separate from the sound effects and dialogue. Film composers can often subtly suggest or reinforce aspects of the film by musical association, and an example of this is to suggest bugle calls without using a direct quotation. Examples of this are:
There is a Mexican Bugle Call called El Degüello. This translates literally as "Slit Throat" signifying to the enemy to surrender as there will be "no mercy". Though some historians disagree, it is reported that this Bugle Call was used by General Santa Anna's army before the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. The sheet music used by the Mexican buglers is preserved in a museum and here is a YouTube video which recreates the Degüello bugle call. The film composer Carter Burwell used a slow version of this call overlaid with a violin to create the track called "Deguello de Crockett" in the 2004 Disney/Touchstone movie "The Alamo" (see this YouTube video). In the 1960 John Wayne film "The Alamo", Dimitri Tiomkin used a theme which is sometimes called "Deguello" (Tiomkin also used the same melody in the film "Red River"), but this music is not related to the bugle call. However if you listen to the track called "The Ballad of The Alamo" towards the end of the 1960 film you will hear that Tiomkin very cleverly includes a long quotation from Taps just after the lyrics "now the buglers are silent". (Also note that the Deguello call does not use exactly the same members of the harmonic series mentioned earlier in this article. Either the players extended the harmonic series to include an additional "C" or their instruments included valves.)
In the US bugle calls or similar have been used at sporting events, with First Call being widely used at horse races for example.
Bugle calls are also sometimes used as fanfares when military personnel are providing public entertainment, such as at parades, displays and shows. In the UK one of the biggest shows of this kind is the Edinburgh Military Tattoo held at Edinburgh Castle.
Some non-military groups have based elements of their discipline on the military, and have adopted bugle calls as part of this, with the U.S. Scouting movement being the obvious example.
Two of the most widely recognised bugle calls are The Last Post and Taps. Originally used to signify the end of the day, their association with "the end" of something has resulted in their use at military funerals. This symbolic use has spread to related occasions such as remembrance events and other ceremonies to honour those who have died in battle. The music itself and the strength of this association, means that listening to "Taps" and "The Last Post" can be a very emotional experience for the listener. There is more about Funeral Music and Remembrance Day Music in these mfiles articles which both include many examples.
In the book "Time Enough for Love" the Science Fiction novelist Robert Heinlein illustrated some of the book's chapters with certain bugle calls. The particular bugle calls quoted related to key events taking place in those particular chapters of the story.
We have commented on the cultural associations of bugle calls, but is there a deeper meaning? In our article What is Music? we mention the distinction in Western music between major and minor chords, observing that the notes of a major chord arise from earlier members of the harmonic series. To ears conditioned by years of listening to Western music, major chords sound more harmonious and are more often used in music depicting pleasant or good emotions.
The notes played by a bugle are the same as the notes of a major chord - in the key of "C" these notes are C, G and E. There is something very elemental and strong about these notes and from time to time composers have used basic melodies which tap into the power of these notes. In Also Sprach Zarathustra (the 2001 theme) the composer Richard Strauss uses a musical motive consisting of 3 ascending notes which are C-G-C first heard on trumpets. This music was inspired by Nietzsche's book of the same name which talked in metaphysical terms about Übermensch (often translated as "Superman"). Interestingly John Williams starts his theme for the movie "Superman" with an opening fanfare whose first 13 notes on the trumpet consist entirely of the notes C and G. Both of these motives have an elemental strength which springs from their simplicity and position in the harmonic series.
One final example also concerns the composer John Williams. For the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" Steven Spielberg wanted one of the methods of communication used by the aliens to be through the use of music. The filmmakers tried hundreds of combinations of notes before finally agreeing on a sequence of 5 notes, which they felt formed the simplest yet most complete and satisfying musical phrase suitable for the purpose of alien communication. In the key of C these notes are D-E-C-C-G so 4 out of the 5 notes come from a simple major chord.
My father served in the British Army for his National Service in the late 1940s. He used to play some of the bugle calls he was familiar with on the accordian, and I remember the Charlie Reveille and Meal Time calls in particular. As a boy I was also delighted to discover bugle calls quoted in the Book "Time Enough for Love" and wrote these out on notation paper to play on the piano.
My thanks to Jeffrey Dane for his input to this article.