Old Main chimes 'Happy Birthday'

February 21, 2005

University Park, Pa. -- On Feb. 22, people on and near Penn State's University Park campus will hear a different song emanating from the Old Main bell tower. Instead of the familiar Westminster Quarter chimes, "Happy Birthday" will ring out on each quarter-hour, in honor of Penn State's 150th birthday.

The sesquicentennial celebration chimes were recorded by Dan Armstrong, professor of music, and Kent Klouser, a television and editing technician with WPSX.

This is not the first time Armstrong's music will be broadcast over the tower's sound system. He is the artist responsible for the chimes that ring out daily. He was asked to record them to replace the pre-recorded digital chip that came with an electronic system purchased about 10 years ago. That system replaced the Old Main clock chime system when it became unreliable.

"The new system worked fine except for one thing -- the sound of the clock chimes on the chip was so different from the way the old system sounded, and very few people liked the new version," Armstrong said. The Office of Physical Plant was instructed to "fix" the chimes, so George Schimmel, then-head of OPP, called O. Richard Bundy, director of the Blue Band, who suggested that he contact Armstrong.

Armstrong chose to use a set of tubular chimes made by the now-defunct Deagan company, and set up a recording date with then-School of Music technician Bob Wilkins to record the new set of clock quarters.

The job was not as easy as it sounded. Electronic chimes such as those recorded on the chip that came with the system sounds artificial because with each succeeding musical note played, the previous note disappears entirely. Acoustic chimes have a rich sound because musical notes continue to reverberate as more notes are played, but the overtones that build up naturally overwhelm the sound system. It was Armstrong's job to come up with a solution that would sound natural, but not overwhelm the system.

"It took some experimenting to get things just right," Armstrong said. "I had to devise a system of playing the instrument so that as I played each new note, I used my other hand (gloved) to quiet down the previous notes without stopping their sound entirely. That would make the resultant sound more natural and pleasing to the ear. It took a bit of coordination, but it worked."

The job was not done on a single attempt, however. "After one take, Bob told me 'I think we've got it,' but I told him we better do it again. When he asked why, I told him to listen to that take and see if he could hear my stomach growl. After checking, he said 'Yeah, it's here!' To this day I wonder what that would have sounded like ringing out over Happy Valley."

As they continued to record, Armstrong realized that the E-D-C-G notes of the Westminster Quarters had a familiar ring. He added in a second "E" at the beginning, and had a popular Penn State tune.

"Right then and there I composed a set of clock quarters based on the fight song. Bob thought the idea was a hoot, so we went ahead and recorded it. I did it more as a joke to play for George Schimmel, but he really liked it."

So did others on campus, and the "Hail to the Lion" chimes now are played every Friday afternoon.

  • Kent Klouser, left, recorded the 'Happy Birthday' chimes played by Dan Armstrong, right.

    IMAGE: Annemarie Mountz

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010