AskDefine | Define taps

Dictionary Definition

taps n : (military) signal to turn the lights out [syn: lights-out]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A song played at the end of the day, and at military funerals.
  2. Plural of tap


  1. third-person singular of tap

Extensive Definition

This article is about the musical piece. For other uses, see Taps (disambiguation).
Taps is a famous musical piece, played in the U.S. military during flag ceremonies and funerals, generally on bugle or trumpet. The tune is also sometimes known as "Butterfield's Lullaby", or by the lyrics of its second verse, "Day is Done".
The bugle call was composed by the Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, an American Civil War general who commanded the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division in the V Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Butterfield wrote the tune at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, in July 1862. Taps also replaced "Tattoo", the French bugle call to signal "lights out." Butterfield's bugler, Oliver W. Norton, of Erie, Pennsylvania, was the first to sound the new call. Within months, Taps was used by both Union and Confederate forces. Villanueva (see external link "Detailed History of Taps" below) states that the tune is actually a variation of an earlier bugle call known as the Scott Tattoo which was used in the U.S. from 1835 until 1860.
Taps concludes many military funerals conducted with honors at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as hundreds of others around the United States. The tune is also played at many memorial services in Arlington's Memorial Amphitheater and at gravesites throughout the cemetery.
Taps is sounded during each of the 2,500 military wreath ceremonies conducted at the Tomb of the Unknowns every year, including the ones held on Memorial Day. The ceremonies are viewed by many people, including veterans, school groups, and foreign officials. Taps is also played nightly at 10 PM (2200 hrs) in military installations at non-deployed locations to indicate that it is "lights out." When Taps is played at a funeral, it is customary to salute if in uniform, or to place the right hand over the heart if out of uniform.


While there are no official lyrics, and the original version was purely instrumental, there have been several later lyrics added. The most common form is shown below: 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 hills, from the lake, from the sky All is well, safely rest; God is nigh.
Then goodnight, peaceful night; Till the light of the dawn shineth bright. God is near, do not fear, Friend, goodnight.
The other popular version, penned and harmonized by famed composer Josef Pasternack, is: Love, sweet dreams! Lo, the beams of the light Fairy moon kissed the streams, Love, Goodnight! Ah so soon! Peaceful dreams!
Another set of lyrics, used in a recording made by John Wayne about song, go like this: Fading light Falling night Trumpet call, as the sun, sinks in fright Sleep in peace, comrades dear, God is near.


The melody of "Taps" is composed entirely from the written notes of the C Major triad (i.e. C, E, and G). This makes it appropriate for playing on the bugle or the C Major diatonic harmonica, since one only needs to play blow notes.
The dual connection of "Taps" with death and with extinguishing lights is reinforced by the modern expression, "lights out," often used as a slang expression for actual death, or more often for symbolic "death," such as a sports team's loss in a game or tournament.


According to Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions by William P. Mack and Royal W. Connell issued to each Plebe at the United States Naval Academy, Taps is closely related to Tattoo; the latter is derived from the Dutch word taptoe, time to close up all the taps and taverns in the garrisoned towns. The Century Dictionary defines the word as a beat of drum or bugle call at night, while "taps" is defined as a signal upon a drum or trumpet at about a quarter of an hour after tattoo.


There are several urban legends concerning the origin of Taps. The most widely circulated one states that a Union Army infantry officer, whose name is often given as Captain Robert Ellicombe, first ordered the Taps performed at the funeral of his son, a Confederate soldier killed during the Peninsula Campaign. This apocryphal story claims that Ellicombe found the tune in the pocket of his son's clothing and performed it to honor his memory. But there is no record of any man named Robert Ellicombe holding a commission as captain in the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign.
That Daniel Butterfield composed Taps has been sworn to by numerous reputable witnesses including Oliver Norton, the bugler who first performed the tune. While scholars continue to debate whether or not the tune was original or based on an earlier melody, few researchers doubt that Butterfield is responsible for the current tune.
Another, perhaps more historically verifiable, account involves John C. Tidball, a Union artillery captain who during a break in fighting ordered the tune played for a deceased soldier in lieu of the more traditional–and much less discreet–three volley tribute. Army Col. James A. Moss, in an Officer's Manual initially published in 1911, reports the following: "During the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, a soldier of Tidball's Battery A of the 2nd Artillery was buried at a time when the battery occupied an advanced position concealed in the woods. It was unsafe to fire the customary three volleys over the grave, on account of the proximity of the enemy, and it occurred to Capt. Tidball that the sounding of Taps would be the most appropriate ceremony that could be substituted." While not necessarily addressing the origin of the Taps itself, this does represent a milestone as the first recorded instance of Taps being used in the context of a military funeral. Until then, while the tune had meant that the soldiers' day of work was finished, it had little to none of the connotation or overtone of death with which it is so often associated today.

Historical addendum

Taps was played at the funeral ceremonies for the assassinated President John F. Kennedy on November 241963. The bugler hit a clinker on the sixth note (corresponding to the word "sun" in the lyrics for the second verse).

See also

Silver Taps and Echo Taps are local or special versions of the song.
The British and Commonwealth equivalent is "Last Post". The Norwegian equivalent is the "Bønn" (Prayer). In Germany and Austria "Ich hatt' einen Kameraden" ("I had a comrade") is played at every military funeral.



taps in German: Taps
taps in Thai: แตรนอน

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Angelus, Angelus bell, alarm, alarum, battle cry, bay, beep, birdcall, blare, blast, blat, bray, bugle call, burial, burial at sea, burying, call, cortege, dead march, deep six, dirge, fanfare, flourish of trumpets, funeral, funeral procession, honk, last post, moose call, muffled drum, peal, rallying cry, rebel yell, reveille, shriek, squeal, summons, tantara, tantarara, tarantara, tattoo, toot, tootle, trumpet, trumpet blast, trumpet call, tweedle, war cry, whistle
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