The baleful strains of taps echoed across sunlit Arlington National Cemetery yesterday, as they have many thousands of times before.

The sad bugler's call is heard at Arlington more than any other place in the world, an average of 30 times a day. Coming at the end of funerals and memorial services, taps almost never fails to draw tears from mourners. It will be sounded again on Monday, Memorial Day, when President Clinton lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

"There's nothing I can think of more appropriate than the notes of taps to symbolize Arlington National Cemetery," said Jack Metzler Jr., superintendent of the cemetery.

But the rendition yesterday morning was different from most. Taps was being played for the sake of the music, rather than the memory of a fallen soldier.

With a flourish of trumpets in the cemetery's visitors center, officials cut the ribbon to open a three-year exhibit that tells the story of taps, a call that originated during the Civil War and is now perhaps among the most recognizable of all American tunes.

Wood and glass display cases and information panels in the center's atrium describe taps' origins and its role in historic ceremonies. A myriad of trumpets and paraphernalia is on display, from the Civil War era and later, including a plastic bugle made during World War II when brass was scarce.

The centerpiece is the bugle played at Arlington on Nov. 25, 1963, at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. Also featured are the sword and spurs worn by Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield, credited with creating taps during a campaign in Virginia.

The idea for the exhibit was born on Memorial Day last year by a bugler who has sounded taps hundreds of times at Arlington. Master Sgt. Jari Villanueva, trumpeter for the U.S. Air Force Band at Bolling Air Force Base, suggested it to Metzler. "The one thing that is common to every ceremony at Arlington is that taps is sounded," said Villanueva, a Baltimore native.

Villanueva's interest in taps began soon after he became an Air Force musician 14 years ago. Questioned about its origins by a superior, Villanueva realized he knew nothing and began researching the topic. He found a great deal of confusion. "A lot of stories associated with it are myths," Villanueva said.

One of the most popular and melodramatic involves a Union captain on a battlefield who comes across his son, terribly wounded, wearing the uniform of the Confederacy. The father drags his son to safety, but the young man succumbs to his wounds. Inside his son's pockets, the father finds a sheet of music upon which the notes to taps are written. A bugler sounds it at the soldier's funeral, and the rest is history, supposedly. "It's a great story, just not true," Villanueva said.

The real story, according to research by Villanueva and historical documentation, is that Butterfield, a Union brigade commander during the Peninsular campaign in 1862, grew tired of the "lights out" call sounded at the end of each day. Butterfield thought it was too formal.

With the help of the brigade bugler, Oliver Wilcox Norton, Butterfield made some changes. The resulting "taps" was adapted from an existing tattoo call to notify soldiers to knock off drinking for the evening and prepare for bedtime roll call.

Although intended as a new "lights out" call, taps was quickly put to use at a funeral for the first time during the same campaign in July 1862, when a battery commander ordered it played in lieu of a rifle volley for the burial of a cannoneer who had been killed in action. With his battery close to enemy lines, the commander was worried that firing three volleys over the grave -- as was customary -- would alarm the Confederates and spark renewed fighting.

Sounding taps at funerals was taken up throughout the Army of the Potomac, first by custom and then by order. Even the Confederates picked it up. By 1891, taps was written into drill books as mandatory.

"There is something singularly beautiful and appropriate in the music of this wonderful call," Norton wrote years after the Civil War. "Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace. Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air."

Villanueva said it is never easy to play taps at a funeral. "You wouldn't be human if you didn't get nervous," he said. "The call itself is not that difficult, but given the circumstances of when you have to play it, it can be kind of trying. Every time you sound taps, you want to do your best, especially if it's someone killed in the line of duty."

CAPTION: A Bugle Call to History: Army Sgt. 1st Class James McKenzie, left, Marine Staff Sgt. Scott Gearhart, Navy Chief Musician Kevin Dines and Air Force Senior Master Sgt. John Pursell perform at the opening of an exhibit on military bugle history, including the origin of taps, at Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo ran on page A01)

CAPTION: Army Sgt. 1st Class Allyn Van Patten plays taps at Arlington National Cemetery.

CAPTION: Army Sgt. 1st Class Allyn Van Patten plays taps during opening ceremonies for an exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery that tells the story of the bugler's call.