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Title: The Civil War: Its Music and Its Sounds, Fort Sumter to Gettysburg—Cavalry Bugle Signals, “The General”; members of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, Frederick Fennell, conductor. Label: Mercury. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 432 592-2. Track: I-27.

Title: Infantry Calls (Official)—Taps; John Hazel, bugle. Label: Edison. Format: 2-min. cylinder. Catalogue#: 8144. Track: 1.

Contextual Associations

The bugle is an end-blown lip-reed aerophone of the natural type, meaning it is restricted to sounding only a fundamental and the notes in the harmonic series above it. Originating in Europe, the bugle today can be found throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. Its primary association is with the military or with civilian organizations that value military-like discipline. It is played mostly by males but also by females when an organization supporting a bugle unit is entirely of that gender (e.g., female military service units). Historically, the bugle has served two primary functions: signaling and to accompany marching/parading. Its high register and clear sound (‘clair,’ the root of its French name, means ‘clear, bright’) made it an effective signaling instrument on the battlefield (could be heard up to two miles away) and in military encampments for centuries in pre-speaker and pre-wireless communication times. Soldiers would learn to recognize a vocabulary of bugle ‘calls’ and their associated meaning (audio #1). While mostly unnecessary today, one bugle call that is still in currency and used to honor the dead at funerals and for veteran remembrances (e.g., Memorial Day) is called ‘taps’ (audio #2). A bugle and drum unit was historically used to lead soldiers while marching, be it for exercises in an encampment, in a war theater, or for a civic parade. Today there exist hundreds of civilian bugle and drum corps around the world usually associated with public schools and youth organizations. The European and American bugle and drum unit spread worldwide during the age of colonialism as part of military forces. Bugle corps from the first decade of the 20th century are pictured in detail #2 (British), detail #3 (French), and detail #4 (American). Colonial forces often trained local military and police forces in their own image (detail #5 from Tonkin [now Vietnam], detail #6 from South Africa, and detail #7 from Morocco). Sometimes local and European military music traditions were combined (detail #8 from North Africa, showing a traditional nouba ensemble augmented with French drums and bugles).


The basis of all three bugles pictured in the gallery is a length of metal tubing (of copper or brass) with a cup mouthpiece inserted at one end and a bell at the other. They differ in the length and looping/coiling of their tubes, their bore profile, their bell shape, and whether or not they include an additional length of tubing for the purpose of transposition. The first, British-made, bugle has a tube length of approximately 4.5 feet that loops around twice, a wide conical bore, a funnel-shaped bell, and no additional tubing. The second, American-made, bugle also has a tube length of approximately 4.5 feet but with three loops, a moderately conical bore, a flared bell, and no additional tubing. The final bugle, also American-made, has a basic tube length of approximately 5.3 feet that loops around twice, a mostly cylindrical bore, a flared bell, and an additional coil of cylindrical tubing approximately 1.8 feet in length that is added by depressing a valve and locking it in place with a screw; with this addition the total length of the tube is about 7.1 feet.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, typically standing, grasps the tubing just below the bell flare with his or her right hand and positions the bugle so that the mouthpiece touches their lips and the bell is facing forwards. With the given length of tubing, the performer may produce a fundamental pitch (called a pedal tone) and the notes in the natural harmonic series above it by controlling the force of the airstream (with their diaphragm muscles) and its modulation (with their embouchure muscles adjusting lip tension). The fundamental of the first two bugles is B-flat2, and that of the third G2 without the supplemental tubing and D2 with it. The fundamental is difficult to sound and is therefore seldom used; the vast majority of bugle music is restricted to the five partials above the fundamental (a range of one-and-a-half octaves) starting with B-flat3 for the first two bugles and G3 for the transposing model. Bugles are typically transposing instruments written in C but sounding a M2 below (for the B-flat instruments) or a P4 below (for the bugle in G).


The bugles pictured on this page have antecedents going back centuries. The first bugle pictured here (gallery #1) is of British design and became standard issue in 1858. The second bugle (gallery #2), manufactured in 1917, is American-made and was one of multiple forms of the bugle in use during World War I (its owner, who served in that war, etched the names of all the countries he served in on the instrument’s bell [detail #1]). The final bugle (gallery #3) dates from around 1907 and was standard issue for the U.S. Army at that time. 

Bibliographic Citations

Baines, Anthony. 1976. Brass Instruments: Their History and Development. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

________. 1984. “Bugle.” NGDMI v.1: 280.

Bate, Philip. 1966. The Trumpet and Trombone: An Outline of their History, Development and Construction. London: Ernest Benn Limited.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carse, Adam. 1975 (1965). Musical Wind Instruments. New York: Da Capo Paperback.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

423.121.22 aerophone--end-blown natural labrosone with curved or folded tube; with mouthpiece (material has been added to the tube to form a mouthpiece)

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with flaring open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: lip reed (player’s lips) placed over cup mouthpiece at end of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: none

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - selecting partials of a single cavity’s fundamental through overblowing


11 in. length (first bugle) 9.6 in. length (second bugle) 21.3 in. length (third bugle)

Primary Materials

metal - sheet



Entry Author

Roger Vetter