About the Chimes and Tower
The Cornell Chimes
The Cornell Chimes has been the heartbeat of campus life for more than a century, marking the hours and chiming concerts. The original set of nine bells first rang out at the university’s opening ceremonies October 7, 1868. Over time the chime has been recast and expanded to 21 bells; it continues to ring daily concerts, making it one of the largest and most frequently played chimes in the world.
The bells are played by "chimesmasters." An average of ten chimesmasters play three concerts daily during the school year and a reduced schedule during the summer and semester breaks, in addition to a variety of specialty concerts. Each spring a rigorous ten-week competition is held for anyone interested in becoming a chimesmaster. Previous chime experience is not a requirement to playing this unique instrument, only the ability to read music and the energy to climb 161 steps. There is no electronic assistance to the playing mechanism — all the work is done by the player. In the 1940s a chimesmaster received physical education credit for her efforts!
Virtually every kind of music is played on the bells, from Baroque to Beatles, Schubert to Scott Joplin, "Pomp and Circumstance" to the "Mickey Mouse March," selected from a collection of more than 2500 pieces specially arranged for the Cornell Chimes by current and former chimesmasters. There are even duets. Because of the direct link between the playing stand and the clapper of the bell, it is possible to vary the dynamics of the music.
The chimes remain a bastion of tradition on campus. The "Cornell Changes" (known affectionately as the "Jennie McGraw Rag" in honor of the donor of the original bells) has heralded every morning concert since 1869. Its 549 notes provide a challenge to chimesmasters, whose goal it is to play it as fast as possible. It must be memorized by aspiring chimesmasters. Also played daily are the "Alma Mater" at the midday concert, and the "Cornell Evening Song" at the end of the evening concert.
The bells were originally played on a ground level playing stand on the site of the current clock tower, before moving to McGraw Hall in 1873. In 1891, upon its completion, they were moved to their permanent home atop library tower (later renamed McGraw Tower). Local architect William Henry Miller designed the 173-foot tower and adjacent Uris library.
The seven rooms in the tower were originally used to store the library’s stacks (presumably the lesser-used works!). They now house the chimes office, museum, practice room, and the 1875 Seth Thomas clock with a 14-foot pendulum. Visitors can still see the clockworks and pendulum, but a computer now operates the clock. In 1999 as part of the restoration of the bells and tower, a global positioning system was linked to the clockworks keeping all four clockfaces correct, up to the second!
The tower, a symbol of the university, as it stands above Cornell and the community is known to take on different appearances during the school year. Every Halloween the glowing clock faces resemble four jolly jack-o-lanterns. In March the clock faces take on a greenish hue in anticipation of Dragon Day when the first-year Architecture students debut their giant dragon to be thwarted by the rival Engineers.
Visitors are welcome and encouraged to attend our chimes concerts to fully appreciate these icons. Something essential would be missing from the campus without that cheery tintinnabulation that serenades Cornellians and visitors daily. In the words of Albert W. Smith 1878:
I wake at night and think I hear
And mem'ry brings in visions clear
Beneath green elms with branches bowed
In springtime suns,
Or touching elbows in a crowd
Of eager ones;
Again I'm hurrying past the towers
Or with the teams,
Or spending precious idling hours
In golden dreams
— from "The Hill"