How to Play Taps

Three Parts:Before You StartPlaying the SongPlaying With Emotion

"Taps" is the name of a short but solemn piece of music (also known as "Day is Done" or "Butterfield's Lullaby") that's usually associated with the U.S. military. Since the mid-1800s, "Taps" has been played at end-of-day flag ceremonies and military funerals.[1] The song is fairly easy to play — the only notes used in most versions are those of the C major triad (G, C, E, and G). However, playing with the proper dignity and respect that the piece deserves is a little harder, so start practicing today for best results.

Part 1
Before You Start

  1. Image titled Play Taps Step 1
    Get a musical instrument you know how to play. "Taps" can be played on virtually any instrument. As long as you can play a complete C major scale from one G note to the G an octave above it, you can play the tune.
    • However, traditionally (and at most military occasions today), "Taps" is played on trumpet or bugle.
  2. Image titled Play Taps Step 2
    If you know how to read music, grab the sheet music. Being able to read sheet music makes playing "Taps" much easier, since the music to the tune is public domain and freely available online. One good source for the sheet music is at the official site for U.S. Army bands.[2]
    • Note that the sheet music above uses the treble clef. If you can only read music that is written in bass clef, you will need to transpose the notes in the song (or just identify each note individually.) See Our article on the subject for a brief guide.
    • Note also that there is an alternate version of "Taps" for bass clef instruments that uses the notes of the Bb major triad (F, Bb, D, and F again.)
  3. Image titled Play Taps Step 3
    Listen to the song. If you're not familiar with the song already, it's a smart idea to listen to a recording of "Taps" before you start playing. Though the song uses only four different notes and 24 notes in total, listening to the song being played can help you get a sense for the rhythms used in the song and, more importantly, the dynamics and emotional timbres used for it. The site linked above has a good-quality recording of "Taps" played by a solo trumpet.

Part 2
Playing the Song

  1. Image titled Play Taps Step 4
    Count the beat slowly in 4/4 time. "Taps" is almost always written in common (4/4) time and the key of C. A slow, steady tempo (e.g., quarter note = 50 beats per minute) that's appropriate for the song's solemn tone is generally used.[3] A metronome can be useful for practice, if you have one.
    • 4/4 time essentially means that there will be four beats per measure and that each beat will be equal to one quarter note. Start mentally counting, "one, two, three, four" as you read the music, keeping your tempo as steady as possible.
  2. Image titled Play Taps Step 5
    Play G-G-C, holding the C. The song starts with one beat's worth of pick up notes: a dotted eighth note G and a sixteenth note G. These are followed by a dotted quarter note C above them held for three beats.
    • The starting G is the first G above middle C on most versions of the sheet music, but it's possible to play "Taps" in any G-to-G octave that's comfortable for you.
    • Note the pickup notes — this means that the song actually starts on beat four, rather than beat one.
  3. Image titled Play Taps Step 6
    Play G-C-E, holding the E. On the fourth beat of the first measure, the same rhythmic pattern as before repeats, but with different notes. First, play a dotted eighth note G, then a quick sixteenth note C, then hit the E above these notes and hold it for three beats into the second measure.
  4. Image titled Play Taps Step 7
    Play G-C-E three times, holding the last E. Next, the G-C-E pattern from above repeats several times, but with different rhythms. On the fourth beat of the second measure, play a dotted eighth note G, a sixteenth note C, and a quarter note E (held only for a single beat. Play this G-C-E (quarter note) pattern again. Finally, play the same G-C-E pattern, only hold the E (which is now a dotted quarter note) for three beats instead of just one.
  5. Image titled Play Taps Step 8
    Play C-E-G (ascending), then E-C-G (descending), holding the last G. On the fourth beat of the fourth measure, the song's short climax begins. This section is different than the patterns you played before. Play a dotted eighth note C, then a sixteenth note E above it, then hit a half note G above that and hold it for two beats. Play descending E and C quarter notes after the high G on beats three and four of the fifth measure. End by playing a dotted quarter note low G on the first beat of the sixth measure and holding it for three beats.
    • Note that the high G in this measure is exactly one octave above the low G you've been using for the rest of the song.
  6. Image titled Play Taps Step 9
    Play G-G-C, holding the C. To end the song, play the pattern you used at the very beginning. Play a dotted eighth note (low) G, a sixteenth note G, and a dotted quarter note C, holding the last note for three beats.
    • Congratulations — you've just played "Taps."

Part 3
Playing With Emotion

  1. Image titled Play Taps Step 10
    Hold the long notes with fermatas over them. Playing the notes of taps exactly as they are written on the page is one thing, but playing them with feeling is another entirely. To do this, you'll need to pay attention to the symbols on the page besides the notes as well. For example, on the song's sheet music, almost every dotted quarter note is marked with a symbol that looks like a downward crescent over a dot (or a small eye.) This is called a fermata symbol and it means to hold the note somewhat longer than normal. Exactly how long you hold the note is up to you. Usually, to keep the song's solemn and dignified tone, it's best to play these notes for only a few extra beats, but feel free to play around with the fermata notes as you practice to find what sounds best.
    • The fermata notes in the song are most of the dotted quarter notes: the C at the start of the first measure, the E at the start of the second, the E at the start of the fourth, and the C at the end of the song. Note that the low G at the start of the sixth measure doesn't have a fermata — if it sounds good to you, you can usually still get away with extending this note.
  2. Image titled Play Taps Step 11
    Grow in intensity through the song, peaking at the high G note. Notice the markings below the staff on the sheet music that look like long, skinny < and > symbols. These signal you to perform crescendos and diminuendos. This basically means that you should start the song at a medium volume (signified by the mf mezzoforte symbol at the start), then get louder very gradually until you reach the climactic high G, which should be fairly loud (signified by the ff fortissimo symbol underneath it.) After this, decrease in volume to a moderately loud level until the end of the song.
    • Don't go overboard with the loudest notes. You want to play strongly and powerfully, but if you play loud enough to hurt your listeners' ears, you'll diminish the seriousness of the song. In addition, on most instruments, extra-loud notes are hard to control tonally — you do not want to miss a note during the climax of the song.
  3. Image titled Play Taps Step 12
    Let the final note slowly "die". Notice the morendo under the final note on the sheet music. This is Italian for "dying" and it means exactly what it sounds like.[4] When you play the final note, hold it longer than you normally would and let its volume gradually decrease as if it is "dying away." When you finish playing the note, it should be very quiet — as if you're almost playing nothing at all.
    • The contrast between the climactic high G and the final dying C note can be very powerful if done correctly. The effect this creates is one of powerful emotion giving way to gentle, almost tragic resignation. The special significance of this part of the song at funerals is obvious.
  4. Image titled Play Taps Step 13
    Play "loose" with the rhythms for emotional effect. "Taps" is often played as a chorale — that is, a slow, rhythmically simple song where the beauty of the tones is more important than the rhythms being played. This means that you can be a little creative when it comes to rhythm and tempo. As long as the relative lengths of the notes are preserved, don't be afraid to make individual notes longer or shorter than the music says if it gives the piece more emotional power.
    • For example, one change you might make is to slightly slow down the tempo during the climax of the song to give the notes a "bigger", more powerful effect. There are many more changes you may want to make like this. The exact changes you make are up to you!
    • In addition, it's worth remembering that since you'll almost always be playing taps solo, you don't need to worry about matching tempo with other players.


  • Practice, practice, practice. Just because "Taps" is a simple song doesn't mean that it shouldn't be practiced before playing it. Practice gives you a chance to nail down the solemn quality of the song that's so hard to put into words.
  • Have a friend that's a good singer? Try playing the song as a duet, using the original words to Butterfield's Lullaby available here.

Article Info

Categories: Music Techniques