The Bells Above Campus

If you’ve spent time on campus, you’re probably familiar with the chiming of bells that mark the hour. What you may not be familiar with, however, is that the bells are more than merely a way to mark time, but also a hefty instrument with a long history, otherwise known as the carillon.

According to the UM Carillons page, “A carillon is an instrument of at least 23 bronze bells, arranged in chromatic sequence, so tuned as to produce concordant harmony when multiple bells are sounded together.” Simply put, the bells are tuned specifically to be an instrument; the pitches they produce are intentional. 

On the carillon, the bells are attached to keyboard consoles consisting of a row of batons played with the hands, known as manuals, as well as foot pedals that double part of the manuals’ range. By momentarily depressing a manual or pedal, the player rings the corresponding bell.

The history of carillons began in western Europe several centuries ago, where they were symbols of a town’s wealth and were played on market days and holidays. They have since evolved over time, with most innovation taking place in Europe, becoming what we know them as today. 

On the UM campus, we have two grand carillons (more than 50 bells each): the Baird Carillon housed in Burton Memorial Tower on Central Campus, and the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Carillon within the homonymous tower on North Campus.

Central Campus’ Burton Memorial Tower was built in memory of UM President Marion Leroy Burton. The idea of constructing a tower had been tossed around for decades but was finally made a reality upon the gifting of the carillon bells by UM’s first athletic director, Charles Baird, in 1935. The tower was formally dedicated in December of 1936. For more information about this tower, this link has a brief history and images of the building process. 

North Campus’ Ann and Robert H. Lurie Tower was built in 1996 as a memorial to UM alumnus Robert H. Lurie, and was designed by another UM alumnus, architect Charles Moore. The lowest and largest bells of the carillon are all named after a family member: Robert, Ann, and each of their children.

Contrary to popular belief, the music you hear on the campus carillons is not automated! In fact, the only automated sounds are the aforementioned time markers every fifteen minutes, formally known as Westminster Quarters. Otherwise, you are likely hearing the playing of Dr. Tiffany Ng, Associate Professor of carillon and university carillonist, one of her students, or a local or visiting carillonist. 

In the carillon studio, each student takes private lessons with Dr. Ng and attends a weekly studio class, in which they perform in front of and receive feedback from their peers within the carillon program. This allows students to improve their listening skills, as well as gain new perspectives on their pieces and progress. 

Some students who play and/or enjoy the carillon have formed the Carillon Guild at the University of Michigan. They’ve held themed concerts throughout the past school year, including one for Halloween and another for the Fourth of July, as well as a mini-concert on the Kerrytown Chime. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for details about when they’ll be performing again!

Additionally, keep checking the UM Carillons social media, as information may change, but there are currently daily weekday concerts at noon at either tower. You can find more information on their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as performances on their Soundcloud and YouTube channel. Images above are courtesy of Reian Zhang (first) and SMTD (rest).