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<i>Taps</i> Brings a Somber Tone to Memorial Day - 2002-05-24

At the end of May, the United States celebrates Memorial Day in honor of its fallen soldiers. This year, Memorial Day will also mark the release of a book celebrating the song most associated with those fallen soldiers.

The opening notes of Taps are an uncluttered, 24-note tune played on U.S. military bases at "lights out," and at the funerals of public servants.

The song was actually composed during the U.S. Civil War for a different purpose - to comfort U.S. troops, mired in wretched conditions, after a particularly dispiriting battle in July of 1862. Richard Schneider, author of Taps: Notes from a Nation's Heart, explains. "There was a lot of mud and flies and mosquitoes and dysentery and typhoid fever," he said. "Men were dying every day, and Daniel Butterfield was a compassionate man. He thought his men needed something a little more soothing than the old 'extinguish lights' bugle call."

So, Mr. Schneider explains, General Butterfield composed Taps.

The tune is often played with a "broken" note - a note that "cracks" much the way a human voice does. This tradition can be traced back to the 1963 funeral of President John F. Kennedy, when a broken note in the mournful tune - the bugler's error, in fact - came to symbolize the sadness of a nation.

In his book, Mr. Schneider has tried to explain the mythical importance the tune has attained in U.S. folklore. "I think it is a wonderful tribute to all of those who died for us, and a tribute to every American citizen who works hard to keep this country great. Somehow, the poignant notes bring up memories of the past."

Taps has become an all-too-familiar melody in the United States in recent months. It has sounded at hundreds of funerals, particularly those of New York City firefighters and police officers, who lost their lives in the September 11 terrorist attacks.