Are Hanscom AFB’s daily bugle calls live or recorded?
Maria Cue of Lexington has lived a stone’s throw from Hanscom Air Force Base, a military installation where more than 10,000 people have lived and worked, for decades. This means that the regular hum of planes taking off and landing has long been a part of his daily life. But something else that she hears emanating from the base which brought her to us: The sound of music.
Cue said she regularly hears the sound of a single bugle. Sometimes she hears tunes that are familiar to her, like “Reveille” and “Taps”, but other times, these are melodies that she cannot quite locate. She had been hearing this for years, and for years she had been convinced that what she hears is the work of a living musician.
“This is what I photo, âshe said. “And that’s what it should be.”
But one of his friends isn’t so sure. And it became a bit of a thing between them.
âHe just thinks it’s a recording, and I don’t think it’s a recording,â Cue said. “He calls it buglegate.”
Determined to get an answer. Maria decides to call in the heavy artillery – so to speak – which in this case was us. So, we hopped in the car and took the short drive to Hanscom to get to the bottom of it.
WATCH: Are Hanscom AFB’s daily bugle calls live or recorded?
Maria is sure that “Alarm Clock” and “Taps” are among the calls she hears regularly, but she has mentioned others as well. So our first order of business was to establish what is played here, when, and how often.
And at Hanscom, as is the case with almost all military installations, the same bugle bells are played on a strict schedule Monday through Friday.
âEvery morning at 6:30 amâ¦ ‘Alarm clock’ is played,â said Staff Sgt. William Hebb, the installation command chief. The wake-up call is immediately followed by another bugle call called “Ã la couleur”.
âAnd so, that means the official start of the day of service,â Hebb said.
“Alarm clock” should sound familiar as a wake-up call to just about anyone who has seen a military movie. Like most US Army bugle rings, this is actually a French tune. In fact, the word awakening literally means “wake up” in French.
“Ã la couleur” is also originally a French appeal, although the version heard today replaced the French melody in the 1870s. It was once a signal for troops to assemble in formation near a battle flag, hence the name, but today it is more symbolic.
âThe purpose of this song is to honor our nation,â Hebb said.
At 5 pm, the end of the day of service is marked by a bugle call called “Retreat”, followed by the national anthem. Retreat is again French, officially composed in the early 1800s, although the basic melody dates back to the Crusades.
âWhen you hear thatâ¦ you stop and face the music or the flag if you see one,â Hebb said. “And then once the national anthem is played, your soldiers will salute the flag.”
Then, at 9 pm, comes the traditional signal for the hours of silence: âTapsâ. “Taps” has been the Army’s extinction song since the Civil War, when a Union General, Daniel Butterfield, adapted it to replace the then-current extinction call he hated.
The name “Taps” refers to three distinct drums taps that followed the call once, signaling that all lights should be turned off. The now-familiar melody began to take on a deeper meaning soon after it was composed, as it began to be played at funerals of fallen soldiers and at memorial services.
âIt’s a little darker feeling because it means quiet hours,â Hebb said. “But at the same time, it honors our men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives for the United States of America.”
The bugle calls Maria hears are just a few of the Civil War-era over 50 that once signaled everything from critical battlefield maneuvers to ‘hey, it’s lunchtime’ . And while only that handle still rings today, we have spoken with a number of aviators who have said that they are nonetheless an essential part of 21st century military life.
As for Maria Cue’s big question, are these calls sounded by a musician – or an mp3?
âIn the mid-forties you might have found a man or a woman playing the bugle, you know, in the morning, in the evening,â Hebb said. âHowever, nowadays it is done through technology. “
Indeed, calls are scheduled recordings in an automated system managed by a seemingly unremarkable computer in a windowless room.
The bugle calls Maria hears are just a few of the Civil War-era over 50 that once signaled everything from critical battlefield maneuvers to ‘hey, it’s lunchtime’ .
They are played over six speakers at the top of towers around the base, which are collectively referred to as the “giant voice”. And so it is nowadays in almost all military installations.
So, with answers in hand, I walked back to Cue, feeling a bit like the host of the Great British Baking Show who drew the straw that week and instead of announcing who won the star baker, he was instructed to send someone home.
I killed time by explaining to Cue all about the tunes and their timing. But in the end, I had to put an end to the bugle and break the bad news. She was disappointed to hear the answer, to say the least.
However, I was able to offer him a silver lining. Unfortunately, that would force him to move, but there are still two places where Cue can still hear daily military bugle calls performed by a live musician: the US Marine Barracks in Washington, DC, and the US Military Academy in West Point.
If there’s something itching to learn more, email The Curiosity Desk or send your question below. Edgar may well find the answer in a future episode. For more on The Curiosity Desk, follow Edgar B. Herwick III on Twitter and subscribe to the GBH News YouTube channel.