Yes, that was a Lady Gaga tune you heard emanating from the Tower bells, perhaps followed by “Happy Birthday” and then a Bach minuet.
The carillon—the instrument used to play the bells—may be an ancient apparatus with origins in the 1600s, but in the hands of the students in the UT Guild of Carillonneurs, it swings easily between Baroque and “Bad Romance,” folk and “The Final Countdown.”
In December they play holiday music, although student director Austin Ferguson often sneaks it in before Thanksgiving. They take requests via Twitter (#PlaytheTower), perform special concerts and pick songs to match the day’s events (“The Sound of Music” on Julie Andrews’ birthday). The students have played memorial recitals for the Texas A&M bonfire victims, the Boston Marathon bombings and 9/11.
Every set begins with the Welsh folk song “Ash Grove” and concludes with “The Eyes of Texas.”
The bells are a beloved campus tradition, although few get to see or play them, perched high in the Tower and spanning 4.5 octaves. With 56 bells, UT’s carillon (called the Kniker Carillon) is the largest and heaviest in Texas, with the low B flat 2 bell weighing in at 7,350 pounds and the high G7 a mere 20 pounds.
In room 3002, 55 steps up from the Tower’s observation deck and past a series of guarded doors and narrow passages, the guild members sit at the carillon’s organ-like console, striking a system of batons and pedals that ring the bells mounted in a chamber above.
The students come from many backgrounds. Ferguson is a music theory and government/pre-law junior, while other current guild members are studying oboe, computer science, business, Arabic and environmental science. They are members of an exclusive group that includes alumnus carillonneur Tom Anderson, who still plays today, 61 years after he first started as a music student in 1952.
Membership to the guild is granted only after passing two rounds of a semester-long audition and weekly lessons. The guild abides by an official constitution and is not to exceed nine members at any time.
They are devoted to the instrument and tend to seek out other carillons to play when traveling. Ferguson even has a bell tattooed on his left ankle.
So the next time you step outside on campus, pay close attention. You never know what you’re going to hear.
WATCH: A few of our favorite carillon performances
This story is part of our yearlong series “The Creative Campus,” which showcases student creativity.