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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Who Plays The Baker Bells?

One writer investigates the history of the bells in Baker Tower and how they are currently played.

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Happy Birthday. Barbie Girl. Pomp and Circumstance.

What do these three songs have in common, you may ask? According to the music department’s website on the Baker Library Bell Tower, they are some of the most frequently played songs on the Baker bells. This may come as a surprise to many. It was for me — who knew that the bells knew how to chime much more than the daily 6 p.m. alma mater?

But if these bells can span genres, occasions and generations, who, then, actually plays the Baker bells? The short answer is: no one. 

At least, no one usually. The ringing that reverberates from the top of the Baker Library bell tower is mostly controlled by a software program, according to Rodrigo “Roy” Martinez GR ’25, a graduate student in the music department’s sonic practice program, who currently oversees the bells. 

The software program controls a computer and keyboard system, which in turn operates the bells, Martinez said, giving him access to the bells from “anywhere in the world.” 

As the current bell-ringer, part of his job is to take requests from the community, which can be sent to the bells@dartmouth.edu email, to play certain songs on specific dates and times. Often, this requires learning and manually playing new tunes on a keyboard to program them into the system. Besides these requested songs, the bells are automatically scheduled to play the alma mater at 6:01 p.m. everyday.

However, for popular melodies such as “Happy Birthday” that are already saved on the computer, Martinez said he can instantly program them to play at any time.

“You can actually access these melodies by typing a code [into the system] … but for that to happen, somebody like myself must have had recorded them beforehand,” he said. 

For Martinez, the bells — especially with the option to request songs — help promote a sense of community at Dartmouth.

“The bells seem to unite people who really take Dartmouth seriously, who really love it here,” he said. “And I think [the people that request songs] are like the connoisseurs, because I don’t think everybody’s aware that you can just ask for any music to be played.”

Before speaking with Martinez during a tour of the bell tower, I myself was unaware of the option to request songs, and I wondered just how many so-called “connoisseurs” there are on campus. However, of the students I talked to, none knew about the opportunity to request songs on the bells.

Kaylie Sampson ’25 did not know about the requests, but if she could request a song she would likely choose “a quirky one that only certain people would know.” 

“If it [was] too common of a song I feel like no one would actually listen to it,” she explained. 

For Sampson, the hourly bells serve as a reminder that time is moving forward and that “I have things I have to be doing soon.”

Although Duncan Mahony ’27 did not know about the requests either, he did say that hearing the bells is a positive in his day. 

As Martinez showed me around the bell tower, I watched him program a request for “Happy Birthday” to play at 1:21 p.m. on Jan. 21 in a matter of seconds, merely entering the code for the song into the system and selecting the date and time for it to be played. 

But although the bells are heavily reliant on technology today, this was not always the case.

According to the Dartmouth Library website, the origin of the Baker bells dates back to the construction of Baker Library, when a trustee named Clarence B. Little donated $40,000 for “a set of bells to be placed in the tower of the Library.” For the year after the bells first rang in 1928, they were operated manually. 

The website also states that music professor and instrument-maker William Durrschmidt created “an automation system from three machines and a clock,” much like that of a player piano. In 1979, two students computerized the bells, as the paper rolls and existing system were wearing out, and eventually, the bell-ringing system reached what we have today. 

According to the music department’s website, “Dartmouth College is one of the few locations that still uses real bells instead of recordings or synthesizers.” 

Senior director of project management services Patrick O’Hern, who led a restoration of the bells in 2016, confirmed that the 17 bells in the Baker Library tower are still the original bells. He added that the team left the bells relatively untouched during the restoration project. 

“We were prepared for having to do restoration of the actual bells, but it turned out they were really in great shape,” he said.

According to the music department website, the “[b]ells are turned each year so that the hammers don’t wear out the same spot on each bell,” which is a large contributor to their good condition. 

Even with the option to switch to synthesizers or other bell systems that can be easier to maintain, O’Hern emphasized that there wasn’t “any interest at the institutional level of going to something that wasn’t genuine.” 

“I think particularly in that project, there was a real sense of pride in keeping up with the history,” O’Hern added. “You could walk in there and still see the original scrolls that they would feed in [to the instrument].” 

Martinez acknowledged the uniqueness of being the bell-ringer, which spoke to him particularly when he first heard of the job.

“In the beginning I remember somebody telling me, ‘somebody in this cohort could take care of the bells, and that could be you,’ and I was like, ‘What? Wait, what? The bells?’” he said. 

Even after holding the bell-ringer job for some time, the position remains quite special for Martinez. 

“It’s not something everybody gets to do,” he said.

In addition to the frequent birthday celebrations, Martinez has also received a wide variety of other requests, giving him a “glimpse of the community,” such as playing the pop song “Sexotheque” or even more serious requests like a hymn played in honor of a Dartmouth alum buried around Hanover. 

However, given how few people know about them, the Baker bells have the potential to involve the community much more, according to Martinez. He wants to let more people know that they are “agents” who can “decide whatever music [the bells are] playing.”

Up in the bell tower, I became an agent and made my very first bell request — “Dancing Queen,” which immediately sounded above me. But despite my familiarity with the song, I could not quite place which part of the song was playing. 

This difficulty in recognizing the bells’ songs is due to the bell’s shape, material and build that make every note “its own world of chaotic harmonics,” according to Martinez.

“Every melody that plays won’t be exactly like the one you asked for because bells have a very specific tuning in which you cannot tune them to be perfectly harmonic,” he explained. “So even when you ask for a very, very known tune, when you listen to it, you're like, ‘wait a second there’s something wrong with [this].’ No, it’s just [that] they’re bells.” 

So the next time you hear the Baker bells ring out, whether it be the ever-punctual 6:01 p.m. alma mater, a “Happy Birthday” tribute or a bell-ified version of a pop song, remember that you, too, can choose a tune to ring out from the Baker bell tower.