Bugle calls are musical signals that have been used for centuries to announce certain scheduled and non-scheduled events for military units. For those that do not know, a bugle is basically a valve-less trumpet. Before the era of two-way radios and other modern technical advances, the bugle call was a way to communicate over a distance. Each call melody carried a different and specific meaning. While it may have been difficult for a new private to learn the meaning of all the calls, you can be sure they picked up on it very fast. Hearing a horn blowing in the morning telling you to wake up before dark, one telling you it was time to eat, or another telling you it was finally time for bed after a long day's work becomes familiar very quickly.
Bugle calls began in the United States during the American Revolution as a result of the Continental Army's conflicts with British soldiers. These calls were adopted from existing French and English bugle calls of the time period. As weapons became more powerful and the ranges of these weapons increased, the function of the bugle call became less and less useful. As stated above, technology has taken over many of tasks and communication typically associated with the sounds of the bugle, however; on nearly every permanent base, fort, post, or camp run by the United States military bugle calls are still used daily both as a functional and ceremonial device. Being started by the Army, they are most prevalent in that branch of service, however they are used in all 5 military branches.
There are four basic categories of bugle calls plus a ceremonial category:
- Alarm Call - signal that immediate action is necessary, typically used in case of fire (both burning and enemy varieties)
- Formation Call - signal that units should assemble in formation, or that they should perform a specific action while in formation
- Service Call - signal service oriented events and routine activities such as wake-up, meal time, sick call, etc.
- Warning Call - signal that an event is about to happen, and to be prepared
- Ceremonial Call - Music normally conducted by a military band at official military formations and ceremonies can be played by one or more buglers if a band is not present.
Current Bugle Calls
- Adjutant's Call (Formation Call) - Signals that the adjutant is about to form the guard, battalion, or brigade. This call is accompanied by drums
- Assemble (Formation Call) - Signals troops to assemble at a designated place
- Attention (Warning Call) - Sounds as a warning that the troops are about to be called to attention (see Position of Attention)
Origins: Taken from the British Alarm call which called the troops under arms
- Call to Quarters (Service Call) - Signals all personnel not authorized to be absent to return to their quarters for the night
- Church Call (Service Call) - Signals religious services are about to begin. This call may also be used to announce the formation of a funeral escort
- Drill Call (Warning Call) - Sounds as a warning to assemble for a drill
- Fatigue Call (Service Call) - Signals all designated personnel to report for fatigue duty
- Fire Call (Alarm Call) - Signals that there is a fire on the post or in the vicinity. This call is also used for fire drills.
- First Call (Warning Call) - Sounds as a warning that personnel should prepare to assemble for a formation
- First Sergeant's Call (Formation Call) - Signals that the First Sergeant is about to form the company
- Flag Officer's March (Ceremonial Call) - played as an introduction to a Flag Officer (typically an Admiral of the Navy or Coast Guard, or a General in the Marine Corps) following one to four Ruffles and Flourishes
- General's March (Ceremonial Call) - played as an introduction to a General Officers of the Army and Air Force following one to four Ruffles and Flourishes
- Guard Mounting (Warning Call) - Sounds as a warning that the guard is about to be assembled for a guard mount
- Mail Call (Service Call) - Signals personnel to assemble for the distribution of mail
- Mess Call (Service Call) - Signals meal time. The same call is used for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- Officer's Call (Service Call) - Signals all officers to assemble at a designated place
- Pay Day March (Service Call) - A bugle call march played to announce that troops will be paid
- Recall (Service Call) - Signals duties or drills to cease
- Retreat (Service Call) - Signals the end of the official day. The call is also used to accompany the daily lowering of the flag in the evening, and has nothing to do with running away or retreating in battle. Soldiers who are outdoors and hear this call should face the flag (or face the music if the flag is not in sight) and Present Arms (salute) whether in or out of uniform. "Outdoors" includes people in vehicles, which means that traffic on military posts often comes to a halt around 1700 as drivers exit their cars to stand at attention until the music has completed.
- Reveille (Service Call) - Signals the troops to waken for the morning roll call. This call is also used to accompany the daily raising of the National Colors and/or United States Flag. Soldiers who are outdoors and hear this call should face the flag (or face the music if the flag is not in sight) and Present Arms (salute) whether in or out of uniform.
- Ruffles and Flourishes (Ceremonial Call) - Ruffles (played by drums), and Flourishes (played by horn(s)). Obviously the bugler only plays the flourishes. When preceding the General's March flourishes are played in the key of B flat. When preceding the Flag Officer's March, they are played in the key of A Flat.
- School Call (Service Call) - Signals school is about to begin. (Author's note: This sounds juvenile, but remember certain groups soldiers attend training schools and classes both to learn new skills and advance in rank)
- Sick Call (Service Call) - Signals all troops needing medical attention to report to the dispensary
- Taps (Service Call) - Signals that unauthorized lights are to be extinguished. This is the last call of the regular day. The call is also sounded at the completion of a military funeral ceremony. Taps is to be performed only by a single bugler. Variations including Silver Taps and Echo Taps are not consistent with military traditions and are an improper use of bugle calling.
Origins: Taps was composed by General Danial Adams Butterfield during the American Civil War. Up until that time, the signal of the end of the day was the French final call of L'Extinction des feux. It was later played at a battlefield grave site during a military funeral instead of firing three shots over the grave so as not to give away their position to the enemy. It was not officially adapted until 1874.
- Tattoo (Service Call) - Signals that all lights in the squad rooms be extinguished and that all loud talking and other disturbances be discontinued within 15 minutes
Origins: Tattoo originated in the Thirty Years War by the Germans (who called it Zapfenstreich). This call was sounded to signal the end of nightly drinking.
- To Arms (Alarm Call) - Signals all troops to fall in under arms at a designated place without delay
Order of Daily Calls
Monday - Saturday
* denotes optional calls
Bugle Call "Lyrics"
While technically, none of the bugle calls listed above have lyrics, over time soldiers have made up meaningful or humorous words to go with the melody of the horn. Some of these include:
Soupy, soupy, soupy, without a single bean!
Coffee, coffee, coffee, without a drop of cream!
Porky, porky, porky, without a streak of lean!
I can't get 'em up,
I can't get 'em up,
I can't get 'em up this morning;
I can't get 'em up,
I can't get 'em up,
I can't get 'em up at all!
The corporal's worse than the privates,
The sergeant's worse than the corporals,
Lieutenant's worse than the sergeants,
And the captain's worst of all!
Fading light dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar drawing nigh -- Falls the night.
Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
Then good night, peaceful night,
Till the light of the dawn shineth bright;
God is near, do not fear -- Friend, good night.