From the places I have heard the term, it seems to mean a strictly rhythmic motif, as opposed to a short melodic theme. Specifically, it's been used in the description of the snare drum part in the second movement of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra

  • I have never heard it used for anything other than for drumming. Some composers may have borrowed the term for instrumental sections that they wanted fast staccato, but I can't think of any. – Alphonso Balvenie Feb 27 '17 at 20:23
  • Did you try wiktionary: “A signal by drum or bugle ordering soldiers to return to their quarters”? Other sources may provide more information. – PJTraill Mar 5 '17 at 16:55

There's a good article in Groves dictionary which describes it. Originally a signal for soldiers to return to quarters (otherwise known as "Retreat"), as mentioned by @PJTRaill, this function has become more-or-less obsolete over the years.

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From what I read about, the local annual Tattoo in my area is a series of concerts, parades, and performances. Including Military, police, and civilians performing historic re-enactments, dances, acrobats, choirs, military displays & competitions, dramas, comedy, etc...

Here is where I found the information; http://www.nstattoo.ca/about-us/what-is-a-tattoo

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