The Bugle

Copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2022

The bugle is a brass, or perhaps aerophone, instrument that is often associated with the military. Blow your bugle, then charge the enemy! On the TV series MASH, Radar tried to play the bugle from time to time, often with comedic results. Apparently music is not in Radar's wheelhouse. Still, the songs are familiar to us: Taps, Reveille, Assembly, etc. If you want to hear them played properly, then listen to the U.S. Army band.

There are more bugle calls than you might think, at least 20 on the aforementioned website, each with its own specific meaning. If you're not a soldier, you might only recognize three or four. Let's start with Reveille, a fast-paced bugle call that awakens the troops in preparation for morning roll call. It also accompanies the raising of the national colors. Listen, and notice that the piece comprises only 4 notes, all in the major triad.

Taps corresponds to lights out at the end of the day. It is also played at the end of a military funeral. Taps, in its current form, was written by Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield of the Union Army in 1862. Lyrics by Horace Lorenzo Trim. Read along and listen, and notice once again that the piece is restricted to those same four notes. Only one verse is played.

Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.

Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.

Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know
God is nigh.

Assembly is, well, a call for the troops to assemble. [listen]

First Call is a preparation for a formation or an assembly, but it is familiar to most of us as the start of a horse race. [listen]

Here is the Mess Call. I've heard it before, but I'm not sure where. I wonder if soldiers salivate, like Pavlov's dog, when they hear it? [listen]

The above bugle calls all use the same four notes: the fifth below the key, the key itself (also called the tonic), the major third above the tonic, and the fifth above the tonic. In the key of C, these would be, in ascending order, G, C, E, and G. (Bugles are often in the key of B♭, I am using C for convenience.) Can the bugle play anything else? Yes, Call to Quarters plays C an octave below C, but these five notes (and sometimes a sixth) are the only notes a bugle can play. This is called the bugle scale: C G C E G, assuming the key of C.

The traditional bugle has no valves, no keys, no holes, and no pitch altering components. (Modern bugles may include such devices, and thus access more notes.) Since the shape and size of the bugle is fixed and unchanging, the only notes that can be produced are harmonics of a fundamental frequency. The first harmonic, i.e. the fundamental frequency of the bugle, is C below C below C, which is not accessible. You would have to blow so slowly, to produce this low note, that the resonance never develops.

The second harmonic, an octave above the first, is C below C, achieved by blowing slowly and precisely with a wide mouth. This is not a power note; you're not going to get a lot of volume out of it. Since the bugle was originally designed to coordinate the actions of a military across great distances, this note is not used often.

The fourth harmonic, an octave above the second, is the note that is central to all the bugle calls, the note I am calling middle C.

Double any frequency, and you raise that note by an octave. This is music 101. Thus the first, second, fourth, and eighth harmonics are all C, stepping up by octaves - though the first and eighth harmonics are not accessible.

The third harmonic, between the second and fourth, is G, between C and C. The sixth harmonic will be an octave above the third, since 6 is twice 3, thus high G. Finally the fifth harmonic is E. The harmonics of the bugle, 2 3 4 5 and 6, are C G C E G, giving the bugle scale. Each note is attained by blowing at a certain force and velocity through the instrument. An expert can reach the seventh harmonic, an approximate B flat, but this is difficult and is not incorporated in the standard bugle calls.

A common toy replicates this musical phenomenon. It is called the Singing Tube, and I had a dozen when I was a kid. It is a plastic tube with ridges, about a meter long and a few centimeters in diameter. A bell at one end magnifies the sound. Like the bugle, there are no valves or holes, no devices to change the acoustics of the tube. It's just a tube. Twirl it slowly overhead to obtain the second harmonic, like the lowest note of a bugle. This is a low power note, without a lot of volume. Twirl faster for the third harmonic, then even faster for the fourth, fifth, and sixth. Higher harmonics are difficult to obtain, unless you are willing to dislocate your shoulder. Once or twice I hit the seventh harmonic, but I could never reach the eighth. sounds like the bugle, doesn't it?

With several tubes at my disposal, I taped three of them together to make a very long tube. This cannot be twirled, so I blew into the bell, with the other end near my ear. The fundamental frequency of such a tube is very low, and thus the harmonics that are produced in the audible range are high and close together. The intervals are not melodic at all, and the sound is quite eerie. If a single tube is like a bugle, a weak analogy to be sure, then my longer, homemade tube is like a "natural trumpet", a period instrument used by many baroque composers including Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. The natural trumpet is valveless, like the bugle, but it allows for more harmonics, and consequently more notes. Some of these notes do not fit well within our scales, so blow with care.

If you can find Singing Tubes, purchase a dozen. They are cheap, entertaining, and educational, and they may even provide some insight into the physics of the bugle and other wind instruments.

The most popular song to showcase the bugle is Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, by the Andrews Sisters, recorded in January 1941. The United States would not enter the war for almost a year, but a peace time draft was in place to prepare for the inevitable. Neither the draft nor our entry into the war had widespread support, until Pearl Harbor, and then it was all hands on deck. Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy became an iconic song of World War II, and was played on the radio throughout the war and for years thereafter. A parade of covers testifies to the song's ongoing popularity, from Bette Midler to Katy Perry, and finally the Pentatonix - though I still enjoy the original. The song describes a Chicago street musician who is drafted into the army, Company B to be precise. He is originally restricted to blowing reveille, but then the captain recognizes his talent, recruits more musicians, and assembles a military jazz band that leads and inspires the troops. The Bugle Boy probably plays other brass instruments such as the trumpet, especially if he is part of a jazz band. As the song opens, he stays within the low harmonics, hopping up and down the major triad, but by the second measure he is jazzing it up with notes that cannot be produced by a traditional bugle. The recording is not great, but hey, it's 1941. listen

[ First Verse ]
He was a famous trumpet man from out Chicago way
He had a boogie style that no one else could play
He was the top man at his craft
But then his number came up and he was gone with the draft
He's in the army now, a-blowin' reveille
He's the boogie woogie bugle boy of Company B

The Andrews other signature song, Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree, is also about a soldier who is deployed overseas. He writes his girl and says, “Don't sit under the apple tree, with anyone else but me, til I come marchin home.” It is nearly impossible for us to imagine how the war dominated the lives of every American - in the news broadcasts, in song, in casual conversation, in almost every waking thought. Houses displayed stars on their windows, a blue star for each soldier overseas and a gold star for each soldier killed. Even a trip to the grocery store involved ration books for sugar, coffee, cheese, and other commodities restricted by the war. My grandparents tried to explain it all to me, but I'm not sure I truly grok the fullness.