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Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Exploring the Triad through the Civil War Bugle

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This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Imagine a noisy battlefield, encampment, or port city. A commander has hundreds of men. Wireless communications have not yet been invented. How do the troops receive orders and coordinate movements? During the Civil War, this was the role of the bugle. Analyzing military bugle calls, notated here by Ellis, provides students the opportunity to connect their historical and musical knowledge and skills.

Bugle Calls, John Ellis, 1885, p. 2

Bugle Calls, John Ellis, 1885, p. 3

Read and Play

In a non-music classroom, it’s likely a student will be able to play these pieces for the class, but there are also many apps that allow quick input and playback of musical notation. Or, listen to this recording of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Ask students to notice how the musical qualities reinforce the message of the piece. For example, compare the music for cleaning to the music for putting away cleaning supplies. Why do students think the music for cleaning is relatively fast, while the music for putting away cleaning supplies uses longer notes for a slower feel. Do they recognize any tunes – perhaps “Extinguish Lights?”

Bugle Calls, John Ellis, 1885, p. 4

In a music classroom, playing these short pieces can become an effective music-making opportunity for students of any level. They contain many rhythm fundamentals that are important for students to master. Students may play instruments or sing on solfege. They may perform in three-part harmony to hone ensemble skills, or transpose to other keys to build their range and theory. Bugle calls transform simple arpeggios, typically a tedious warm-up, into historically meaningful, adaptable exercises.


Bugle calls were an early form of broadcast communication. Ask a student (or a computer, if necessary) play a call while others identify the intended message. How accurately can students send and receive information? What musical skills must a successful Civil War soldier have possessed, and how often might musical miscommunication have affected the tide of battle? Challenge students to develop original bugle calls, on musical instruments or simply tapping rhythms upon desks. Can students effectively send and receive messages through music?


Notice how few pitches appear in the bugle calls. Students can explore the sensation of playing the bugle by pressing pursed lips against a length of garden hose and exhaling to cause the lips to buzz. By controlling lip tension and air speed, students may be able to access several distinct pitches. These pitches are part of the overtone series; each higher frequency is mathematically related to the fundamental tone, governed by the length of the tube. Without valves, a bugle accesses all pitches through manipulation of overtones.

Examine the photograph and wonder: What was life like for these dedicated young musicians? What clues does the photograph offer? Where might you learn more?

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

Einstein Fellow Kellie Taylor and I have designed an activity for students to explore this Civil War bugle music through coding.  The activity is available to download from the TPS Network. She has also written a blog post about this activity.

Learn more about the music of the Civil War in the Civil War Music Primary Source Set  for teachers, and the collection of Band Music from the Civil War Era.


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