The UW Madison Carillon - Madison WI

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The UW Madison Carillon Tower
The UW Madison Carillon Tower

A most unusual musical instrument stands proud on Bascom Hill overlooking Lake Mendota in Madison. A Carillon, or Glockenspiel, is a percussion instrument composed of bells mounted in a bell tower that is played with a keyboard where each key or hammer is rigged to a single bell.

There are only three carillon towers in Wisconsin. The one at UW Madison is comprised of 56 Holland made bells and has been being played since 1936.

You can hear the Carillon being played at various times throughout the day and week. But, on Sunday afternoons at 3pm you can also climb the tower stairs to observe the Carilloner, and even go into the bell tower.

UW Madison Carillon Tower
UW Madison Carillon Tower
On a sunny spring afternoon I happened to be driving past the carillon tower and noticed the doors were slung open. Of course, I already knew there was a carillon concert that afternoon - The bells can be heard from picnic point to State Street. I had heard that the famous carilloner of Madison sometimes opens his doors for the curious to come see the inner workings of this gigantic instrument. But, in all my days as a student at UW I never took advantage of the opportunity. Now, as an alum, I have more time and interest in curious corners of the sprawling park-like UW campus.

The inside of the bell tower is dark and medieval looking. A heavy timber and iron staircase spirals up towards the playing deck. You might feel like you are intruding on some sacred solemn ritual when you reach the deck. The Carilloner was hammering on the keyboard - a sweet and simple song - which took on a darkly surreal tone as each note decayed slowly with the weight of giant bells.

An iron ships ladder takes you to the bell deck. A complex rigging mechanically actuates a surprisingly gentle tug on the bells. Beyond Gothic arches are framed views of Lake Mendota. In these guts of a machine - of a musical instrument - you can really feel that sound is a powerful vibration.

The UW Madison Carillon Tower
The UW Madison Carillon Tower


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Public meter parking available on Observatory Drive across from the observatory.

Address for your GPS: 1111 Observatory Drive, Madison WI 53706
| coordinates: N43.075952, W089.405020 |

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