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Coding with Primary Sources: Exploring Bugle Calls through Programming

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This post is by Kellie Taylor, Ed.D., the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow.

Music can create a personal connection between students and the past. Carolyn Bennett’s recent blog post explored the sounds and functions of bugle calls as a form of communication for troops from a musical perspective. This post describes ways in which coding allows students to explore different aspects of these calls.

First, revisit students’ thoughts about this 1865 photograph - or introduce the image and allow time for observation and reflection – focusing on the detail of the boys holding bugles. Next, show them the image of Private Staley. Why might it have seemed important to include the instruments in these photographs?

Detail from General Grant’s Cavalry escort, City Point, Va., March, 1865


[Private James E. Staley of Band Company… holding a bugle to his mouth and carrying a revolver in his jacket]

Ask students what they know about bugles. What do they sound like? What connections do students make to the sound of a bugle call? Able to be heard across battlefields and encampments, bugle calls were more a form of communication than a source of music during the American Civil War and are still used in the military today.

Show students this notated music “Extinguish Lights.” What do they think it might sound like? What patterns, sequences, or musical ideas do students notice in this bugle call that suggest its intended message and purpose?

Detail from Bugle Calls, John Ellis, 1885, p. 2

Programming platforms such as Scratch provide an opportunity for students in the general classroom to electronically re-create songs note by note based on historical sheet music. Coding a song not only connects learning across content areas, provides different means of sharing, and offers a hands-on method for engaging very closely with a historical primary source. In addition, experiencing the song in a different medium can allow students to discover new insights into the primary source.

Support students in coding a simple Civil War bugle call and deepen content understandings by examining primary source sheet music and images. (For an example using Scratch, see this activity) After they finish coding the bugle call, ask students to play the song and reflect:

  • Does it sound like you predicted?
  • Have you heard this song before?
  • Do you think this is good music for turning off the lights? Why or why not?
  • How would the impact of the song change with a different instrument? Or if you changed other aspects of your coded version?

In addition, audio samples from the Library of Congress’s collections can be used to demonstrate the authentic sound of the bugle calls. Listen to the bugle calls recorded a few decades after the Civil War by Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.  How does the audio of the bugle calls provide additional information or connection for the students? What new questions does it raise? Ask students to compare the recorded bugle call of the Rough Riders to the version they coded. Would one of these versions be more or less effective on a battlefield?

Bugle calls [played] by chief trumpeter Cassi of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, 1898.

Additional images, recordings, and other resources could be added to tell a more complete story about the role of bugles in the Civil War and elsewhere. Students can build on their learning experience by composing original music inspired by the characteristic patterns they’ve discovered in the bugle calls.  Please share creations your students develop with @TeachingLC.  We would love to see how you have used this with your students.

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