Catherine Kwon

They are everywhere. 

By “they” I mean the bells—at least if you’re walking, eating, or hoping to nap within a quarter mile of Harkness Tower. I also mean the culprits of this constant sonorous clanging: the Guild of Carillonneurs. Maybe you didn’t know that there were actual people playing the bells. (There are 27, though not all at once.) Maybe you didn’t know that every year, undergraduate piano prodigies line up for a chance to play the carillon, an instrument that requires perfect quadrupedal coordination to play and serves a built-in audience of the anxious and hungover. Maybe you didn’t know that after an exhaustive five-week heeling process, the Guild turns these hopefuls away in droves; only a select few are granted the power to climb the tower and chime out a Beethoven transposition, followed immediately by Doja Cat’s 2021 hit single “Kiss Me More.” 

I, like so many Yale students, am tortured by the chimes. If I cannot outrun them—and I believe me, I’ve tried—I must consume them. Who are these carillonneurs? Are they evil? Tone-deaf? Do they simply wish to be heard? 

When I asked Kimie Han ’23, one of the Guild’s co-presidents, about the bells’ secrets, she pointed out that the carillon was pretty loud: it would be difficult to hide any sinister goings-on from the public when we could hear every peal. This answer was fair and rational. But my investigation could not be stopped by rationality. I needed the truth: So I climbed a bunch of stairs. 


Zoe Pian ’25 led me up the spiral stone staircase within Harkness Tower into a concrete-floored cavern, where laminated placards hung from the ceiling. This, I learned, was the tower’s unfinished and presumably haunted second-floor museum space, filled with cardboard shrines to carillonneurs past. One poster informed me that the Freshman Bellringers Heeling Competition of November 16, 1964 offered its participants free beer.

We climbed up more stairs, this time metal; I remembered I was afraid of heights. We passed a series of carpeted practice/storage/hang-out rooms. A Christmas list from December of 2013 hanging on a wall revealed the Guild’s deepest desires: “Dear Santa, I have been very good and extra nice this year. I would really like to find one of these under the tree….” Someone asked for “soft, nice high bells.” Another simply wrote “ESCALATOR.” 

So these were their motivations. What about their migration patterns? I pressed Zoe for answers. She complied. Every other spring break, while many of their fellow students must content themselves with the beach, the Guild travels to the Royal Carillon School in Belgium—Bell-gium—like moths to the flame. While in Europe, they travel to monasteries and commune with the monks, who also play bells. This made sense to me as an activity for a monk. Less so for a bunch of twenty-one year olds. 

“Is it fun?” I asked. 

“It’s intense,” said Evan Hochstein ’23. Any sightseeing? “It was mostly just going from belltower to belltower and playing the bells.” Still, there was thrill: “Lots of climbing on very concerning staircases, I have to say.” 


Fun fact: the word carillonneur is very difficult to spell. It’s pronounced care-ill-on-UR. (“If that guy we met in Belgium wasn’t lying to us,” says Zoe.) 

Zoe was full of fun facts. I learned that the Yale Guild is not only prestigious but the first and only student-run guild in all of North America. (How lucky we are!) Matching Yale’s massive reputation is an equally large endowment—entirely student-controlled. So what kind of money are we talking? “Just give me a number,” I pleaded to Kimie. “I won’t tell anyone.” Then I had a stroke of genius. “Could you give me an over-under? Is it more than 30,000 a year?” 

“Yes,” Kimie smiled. I realized I had low balled it and totally wasted my over-under. 

What do they do with all that money? At least some of the budget, I learned, goes toward “Bell Maintenance”: a massive bill sent to the creepily-named company Meeks and Watson, whose minions have shown up twice a year since 1912 to perform their trade secrets on the machinery. My complete lack of patience for their janky website instantly foiled any attempt at serious journalistic inquiry. I took matters into my own hands and decided to examine the bells myself. 

Wikipedia had informed me that the phrase “For God, For Country, and For Yale” is carved into each bell, probably in case they wander off and need to be returned. But it was too dark in the

tower to confirm anything except that the bells were big. Really big. Their shadows loomed even in the dark. I worried for my health. 

“How big is the biggest bell? Is it bigger than you?” I asked Zoe. 

“Oh, that’s for sure,” said Zoe. It turned out that the bells weigh a total of 43 tons. I did not enjoy learning this fact. 

“How does it not all fall down?” I asked. 

“I don’t want to think about it,” said Zoe. She smiled. We continued the tour. 


The carillon is, to speak architecturally, weird. Each bell produces a minor third overtone, which is what makes them sound “sort of…,” Evan trailed off, searching for the right phrase. “Out of tune,” he finished. Didn’t they ever try to give the bells a different overtone? Like, a major one? Yes, said Evan, but the short answer was that the bells just didn’t sound right without the tragic resonance. I nodded. It would be terrible, the bells not sounding right. 

Zoe explained that the bells didn’t have dampers—once a note is hit, it will play until it’s ready to stop. The higher bells are so much smaller than the lower bells that their relatively shorter resounding period means a song with too many lower notes sounds terrible. To put it simply: “there are certain pieces that will never sound good.” 

Does the Guild then dictate what kind of piece can be played on the carillon? “Nope.” The thing about the bells, Zoe explained, is that you can practice to perfection on the console, but once you get on the real bells it will sound like you never practiced at all. Sometimes carillonneurs just give up and improvise. 

So what did Zoe think of the bells as an instrument? “They’re neat.” 


When Yale students learn that real people are up in Harkness Tower playing the carillon twice a day, they react strongly. 

“If a person lives in Branford I usually get, like, complete vitriol,” said Zoe. “I realize how loud it is. They’re not lying.” Julia Zheng ‘23, the other co-president of the Guild, agreed. 

Evan was dismissive: “A lot of people in Branford hate us. So you’re the ones who keep waking me up from my naps. If you’re taking a nap at dinnertime, that’s kind of on you.”

The bells are a public instrument. They mix with the noises of the world around them, forming a unique soundscape each time they chime. Everyone in the vicinity of Harkness Tower hears the carillon as it rings—the tone-deaf heartbeat of Old Campus. 

Sometimes guild members will deign to use this power for good. Evan likes to play popular or otherwise recognizable music for his wide and often unappreciative audience, even if he knows the song won’t sound fantastic on the bells, like the Minecraft song he’s recently added to his repertoire: “If I know that someone is going to be hearing what I’m playing and be like I know that song! I grew up with that song!, brightening someone’s day….” 

I smiled. I remembered leaving a grueling class in LC one afternoon and perking up to hear that someone on the carillon was playing the Pink Panther theme, my grandfather’s favorite song to hum in the mornings. This sentiment was a moment of weakness—and exploited at once. 

“I’m glad you’re writing about us,” said Julia, innocently. “We’d have overall better relations with people in the community if they knew about us.” 

Much like the bells, I had been played. 


To end our tour, Zoe treated me to a song she’d been working on called “American Gothic.” It was stately and peaceful. Zoe at the carillon was a whole-body experience: she pounded at the handles with her fists and feet, her torso swiveling, each hit submerging the room in sound. 

I took a second to tune in—to stop thinking about my thwarted naps, or my overdue readings, or the fact that I had failed to unearth even a little hard evidence of the Yale Guild of Carillonneurs’ completely obvious cunning and deceit. I felt the thrum of the walls, the floor, and the air. I thought of the whole campus: people listening, people stopping to listen. Just as the Guild had planned, I liked what I heard. 

The Guild of Carillonneurs does not endorse these statements.

Audrey Kolker is the co-editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News Magazine. She is a junior majoring in English.