Keep the aspidistra flying

Is music like language?

Virtual Taps

For years, the bugle song “Taps” has been the song played over a soldier’s funeral; its instantly-recognizable tune is the psychological soundtrack to North American postwar grief. But apparently, as the years have gone by, military buglers have become something of a dying breed. It’s now quite hard to find one for a military funeral.

So the Pentagon developed a digital bugle — a small speaker that is placed inside a bugle horn, and which plays a digitally recorded version of “Taps”, while the faux-bugler holds it to his or her lips and fakes it. It’s been used in half of the 38,000 military funerals held so far this year. As CNN reports:

“It’s the closest and next best thing to the real thing,” said Mark Maynard, director of the Riverside National Cemetery in California, where a few of the Iraq casualties have been buried. “A bone of contention with veterans organizations and families was just the sound and tackiness of the military carrying boom boxes to play taps.”

What’s interesting here is people’s natural distaste for simulation, when it comes to something as sensually rich — and emotionally significant — as a bugle performance of Taps. A boom box seems inescapably tacky; a real bugle emitting the sound of taps doesn’t, even if the person isn’t really playing. According to the CNN piece, the families sometimes don’t know the alt.bugle isn’t the real thing.

That means there’s a sort of emotional Turing Test going on here: When the fake bugler puts the fake bugle to his lips, what precisely alerts the family to the presence of a simulation? His cheeks aren’t blowing in synch with the music? The tonality of the song isn’t quite right? Does the recording sometimes seem too “perfect,” and devoid of the tiny flaws that make the real seem real?

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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