November 6, 2003


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What is the purpose of the twenty-minute chimes concert every day from 1:10pm to 1:30pm? Surely every Cornellian by now has experienced this interruption of our sonic landscape. We are indeed a campus and a town forever in the shadow of the clock tower and its chimes. By sheer decibels the concert commands attention — for those on campus it is a compulsory concert, one that is impossible to avoid. Even people not associated with Cornell, such as those who live in downtown Ithaca, can hear the chimes concert (and raising your fist every morning at the institution on the hill doesn’t necessarily constitute an association).

The simplest answer to the question of the midday chimes concert’s purpose is that it exists in order to give Cornell students, faculty, and employees pleasure. It is a way in which to uplift the spirits of the sleep deprived and hormone (mis)driven. Granted, sometimes the music is less than uplifting, often times mirroring the dark mood that pervades campus in the winter — consider Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a staple, or the death-like motif in the plodding of Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor. Still, the pleasure that the concerts (may) provide isn’t necessarily the reason for their existence.

One need look no further than Cornell’s own website to find a refutation of the innocent theory of pleasure I’ve posed above. According to the chimes website, the chimes signify more than the fanciful ditties they spin. “The Chimes remain a bastion of tradition on campus,” and emanate from, “The tower, a symbol of the University, as it stands above Cornell and the community” (

Indeed, the chimes concert means something important to this institution, as the website attests, although what that is exactly is not entirely clear. The knelling of bell towers around the world has traditionally been associated with the passing of time, and consequently, death. Perhaps the definitive bell moment comes in ACDC’s “Hell’s Bells,” which employs the by now common trope of death and time associated with bells: “You’re only young but you’re gonna die, / I’ve got my bell, / I’m gonna take you to Hell, / You’ve got me ringing, / You’ve got me ringing / Hell’s bells.” The clock tower has indeed become the symbol of this institution, aptly standing on merchandise logos and in the imaginations of those who’ve attended Cornell. According to the quotation from the chimes website, the chimes are not simply a tradition, they house tradition itself.

What is the purpose of the midday chimes concert? If the chimes represent a fortress of tradition, then the chimes concert is logically the imposition of that tradition on others, a tradition that necessarily excludes those who are not a part of it — the people who live downtown and do not go to Cornell, for example. And what tradition, and whose, are the chimes meant to represent? Something that is “traditional” is something that is conventional, something one accepts without question — maybe that is the real reason why, during the chimes concert, we find it so difficult to speak. Whether you care about the chimes or not, it’s worth thinking about the compulsory performances we attend, and to make your voice heard, even if it requires shouting above the din of something as large and imposing as the Cornell University clock tower.

Archived article by Paula Neudorf