Walking down North Ingalls Street, you may hear the sound of bells ringing from Burton Memorial Tower. Located steps from popular campus stops such as the Modern Languages Building, the Michigan League and Hill Auditorium, many passersby stop to admire the looming structure and to hear the bells ring. Many may wonder: What is it like to play those notes? What is it like to view Ann Arbor from the very top of the tower? Who are the people playing the bells? 

The first mention of building a clock tower on campus is found in an editorial in the Michigan Alumnus published in 1919, just a few years after the clock tower attached to University Library was torn down. Former University of Michigan President Marion LeRoy Burton suggested the tower be built in memory of the 231 men enrolled at the University of Michigan who lost their lives in World War I during his Commencement address in 1921. Instead, after Burton’s death in 1925, the tower was built in his memory. In honor of the University’s bicentennial in 2017, the tower was given an updated floodlight system, which can be programmed to shine in a variety of colors, including maize and blue.

Students use the Charles Baird Carillon, the sonorous bells within the top of the tower, for performances and for classes. The tower usually plays the Westminster Quarters on the hour, but on special occasions, people can also hear different tunes, ranging from classical études to more modern tunes like “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Pixar’s “Toy Story.” The music is incredibly varied, as Rackham student Alexander Gedeon commented.

“You’ll find that there’s a lot of music that is written for the instrument that is either very old or very young,” Gedeon said. “So either from the 17th and 18th centuries or from the 20th and 21st centuries.”

Playing the carillon comes with challenges, too. For example, Gedeon said differences between the carillons in the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Tower and Burton Memorial Tower include the sound of the bells and the weight of the instruments’ keys.

“Every single carillon in the world is … unique,” Gedeon said. “(The Lurie Tower carillon) has a different sound, it also has more notes, and the overall action of it is different too.”

Music, Theatre & Dance graduate student Carson Landry became interested in carillon playing in his undergrad years. Landry said the opportunity to play the famous Burton Memorial Tower carillon is rewarding to him.

“What I love in particular is that here, (the Burton Memorial Tower) is a campus icon,” Landry said. “It’s been really great when I tell people what I do even if they don’t know what a carillon is, which, of course, a lot of people don’t. But then when I explain to them that I play the bells in Burton Memorial Tower, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh! That is so cool!’ So that’s really rewarding I think.”

Rackham student Zoe Lei, who is studying organ performance and sacred music, said one of her favorite parts of playing at the Burton Memorial Tower is meeting the visitors. 

“One of the most enjoyable things is interacting with my visitors after my performance and asking them what songs they prefer and also helping them take pictures,” Lei said. “We can make people lighten up during the day.”

Lei said Professor Tiffany Ng invited her to join the Carillon Studio during her first year at the University in 2020, and despite having no prior knowledge or previous experience, she now performs concerts every Friday at the top of the tower.

“I immediately started the lessons in September (of 2020), and I liked the sound,” Lei said. “Also, it’s usually located in the center of a city so people can hear you play no matter where you are.”

Landry said this privilege of performing for all of central campus comes with a great deal of responsibility.

”You (have to) know to make sure that the music we’re playing is representative of our community and not just whatever I want to play,” Landry said.

Gedeon also said playing the carillon in the tower is special because everyone and anyone can hear the tunes being played. 

“It’s a really cool experience,” Gedeon said. “You learn how the sound that you create affects so many people around you, and you have to be very thoughtful with the sort of music that you’re playing.”

In an email to The Daily, Gedeon reflected on the inclusive nature of the Carillon Studio inside of the tower, which has featured pieces by Navajo composer Connor Chee, repertoire by Black and female composers and a concert featuring music written by blind composers. He contributed to diversifying the music played on the carillon by playing and arranging “Elegiac Prelude” by Yury Shchurovsky for the carillon. The arrangement was inspired by his Ukrainian heritage. 

“The most published and well-known repertoire, as with all western music, is primarily written by white and male composers,” Gedeon wrote. “But we’ve been exposed to music from so many cultures that it has been fascinating and eye-opening listening to so many unique voices around the world.”

The resurgence of the carillon has served to unite all those who play and listen to its beautiful melodies at the heart of the University of Michigan campus. Interestingly enough, the history of the carillon was not always so inclusive, as the knowledge and ability to play the instrument was guarded by a singular family, the Hemony’s, only to be rediscovered in the 20th century.

“The actual ability or knowledge of how to create the bells for the instrument (was) forgotten because that knowledge was just guarded by one family and that wasn’t rediscovered, and the instrument didn’t really have much of a resurgence, until the early 20th century,” Gedeon said. “I think it’s really interesting how you have this one central point on campus that really can connect everyone together because you always hear it every single day, even if you don’t really know how it works or how to play it.“

Daily News Contributors Ji Hoon Choi and Alexandra Vena can be reached at jicho@umich.edu and alexvena@umich.edu.