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Love, loss, longing in a few simple notes

<span class='regtext'>Army SSG. Matt Frederick Fort Leonard Wood
MO plays Taps trumpet during graveside service for Army Spc.
Jared Stanker Holy Sepulchre

Army SSG. Matt Frederick, of Fort Leonard Wood, MO, plays Taps on a trumpet during the graveside service for Army Spc. Jared Stanker at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Worth Saturday, November 7, 2009.

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Updated: December 10, 2013 6:04AM

Ask adults about the most moving musical experience they’ve ever had, and while it may take a few seconds to reflect, nearly all will recall a concert, a hymn, a song on the radio. Or they may name several.

Tom Petty playing “I Won’t Back Down” at a televised concert soon after 9/11 is a memorable example. He sang and played the guitar, his eyes steady and resolute on the TV camera, while his music filled me and millions of others with waves of grief, resolution and pride.

As equally transformational was Natalie Maines’ performance of “Not Ready to Make Nice” at the 2007 Grammy Awards. The passionate vocalization by the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, with lyrics about standing up for freedom of speech, despite the public persecution her musical trio endured for criticizing the Iraq war, resonated with courage, resolve and artistic inspiration.

But the most stirring music that I have ever experienced is a euphonically simple and elegant tune that millions of Americans will listen to on Veterans Day.

While the “Star Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America” and various other patriotic songs are associated with Nov. 11, the melody that never fails to move me is taps.

The first time I heard it, I was a kid attending the funeral of a great uncle who had fought in World War I, and about whom I knew little else. So the rites and ceremonies leading up to the burial were partly interesting, partly boring and mostly ignored while I became re-acquainted with cousins during bouts of horseplay.

But when our parents were able to hush us at the graveside, and a bugler began to blow those mournful notes into the cold, bright sky, I broke into tears and sobs, my relatives’ startled looks notwithstanding.

Uncertainties abound concerning the origin of taps. However, many historians believe that it was adapted from a French melody and first played in the U.S. as a dirge for a soldier’s funeral in the early years of the American Civil War.

For obvious reasons, it caught on, and was thereafter played by buglers at every funeral on both the Union and Confederate side, and at funeral services for American veterans of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Taps is a phenomenon that acts like a miracle drug, insofar as it is mind changing and mood altering.

How any music is able to affect human emotions is still a mystery to scientists. But most are in agreement that it has the power to cause physical changes in the brain, a power that can be enhanced or modified with the addition of lyrics, or with an associated memory or time segment in an individual’s life.

A specific melody, or a carefully constructed combination of notes that has never even been heard before, is capable of making the stomach flutter, or of flooding a listener with an overwhelming sense of longing.

A creative musical artist has the power to produce feelings of happiness, nostalgia, love; or in the case of taps, a sense of loss and sorrow.

I will leave it to music experts to expound on why the nature of the musical notes in taps, along with their length, and the tempo, and half steps and wholes steps, all executed by a trumpet or bugle, has such a heart rending impact on the listener.

When I last heard it, it was played by a member of the military at the funeral of my brother-in-law, Army veteran Don Teutsch, using a bugle with an electronic insert that plays a pre-programed rendition with the press of a button. While experts might detect the differences in the digital version, it was as hauntingly beautiful as ever.

To me, who spends summers in northwest Wisconsin, the effect of taps is comparable to the plaintive wail of the loon.

In the half light and mist over northern freshwater lakes, the loon’s sorrowful song for its absent mate makes you feel its longing, loneliness and fear.

But you also feel its love, and you are edified by its declaration, and by nature’s confirmation that love never dies.

So, too, when we bow our heads during taps on Veterans Day: It helps us commemorate the suffering, the sacrifice, and the tragic loss of American veterans of every conflict, from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan, who sacrificed their lives for freedom.

Taps gives us good grieving, enabling us to feel the soldiers’ love and their longing, as well as the pride in their country, in their families, and in their lives.

David McGrath is Emeritus English Professor, College of DuPage, and author of THE TERRITORY.

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