Q: What's the source of the sound we hear from the Old Main bell chimes?

What's up with that?

closeup of the Willard Bell outside Old Main with flowering trees in the background by Nick Sloff '92 A&A


A: The origin of the sound that marks each quarter hour on the University Park campus has changed several times over the years—with only some of those sounds being produced by the original bell itself. From 1937 to 1993, the bell chimes were created by an electromechanical system in which a striker in a small carillon music box would hit a bar, sending the tune out through eight electromagnetic speakers. That system was upgraded several times until 1993, when professor of percussion Dan C. Armstrong created a digital recording of the Westminster Quarters—the famous melody heard from the bells of London’s Big Ben—using the School of Music’s set of tubular Deagan chimes. “It turned out that what we had been using for decades wasn’t quite accurate,” Armstrong says; the order in which the pitches had been played was slightly different from the chimes of Big Ben. So that the sound of the first chime wouldn’t drown out the next note, Armstrong used cotton gloves to dampen but not entirely eliminate the preceding notes as he recorded. He also developed a set of chime quarters to the tune of “Hail to the Lion,” which is played during home football weekends. In 2012, a single chime of the original Old Main bell, which now stands outside of the building, was digitally recorded, and the remaining notes were electronically manipulated from that note.


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