The bells once rang through a system of levers that had to be pulled by the master bell ringer, said Ben Lee, the current president of music fraternity Phi Mu Alpha.
Lee said now the system is run through a 14-key electronic keyboard.
“Every song that usually plays is prerecorded,” Lee said. “But there’s a time when if you want to play, you can just go up there, plug in the keyboard and rock out.”
At one time, the master bell ringer could only be a member of Phi Mu Alpha, but now Director of University Bands Jeffrey Fuchs said he chooses a student, usually a senior in the music department, to control the keyboard in the Bell Tower.
The current master bell ringer then teaches the new bell ringer how to operate the keyboard. Each master bell ringer holds the position until they graduate.
Fuchs said duties primarily take place during football games where the bells ring before the game, and if UNC wins, after as well.
Duties also involve events such as commencement, when the master bell ringer must turn the tower off to ensure the bells do not chime during the ceremony.
Senior Erin Vanderjeugdt, a member of the music fraternity Sigma Alpha Iota, is the current master bell ringer.
Vanderjeugdt said she views the job as an honor.
“I didn’t realize how humbling of an effect it would be until I got to play my first note,” she said.
Even though the Bell Tower is one of UNC’s most recognizable landmarks, Vanderjeugdt said there is not much maintenance on a day-to-day basis.
“It pretty much runs itself,” she said.
Fuchs said special requests for songs must be approved, and many requests are denied, but the bells often chime for funerals, the birthdays of important alumni and significant events, such as the nationwide ringing of bells after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Songs played in the Bell Tower have to be altered because they can only be played through 14 different tones, Lee said.
“You basically only have one key you can play things in, so you might hear something different that the band plays ... it might sound a little bit different on the Bell Tower, just how we have to change the key,” he said.
Rumors of students sneaking into the tower and playing songs that deviate from the typical UNC football songs have spread around campus, Lee said.
“There are definitely rumors of people going up there late at night, just playing a bunch of random stuff,” she said.
Vanderjeugdt said she has never played a song that deviates from the typical set list, but she has also heard of students playing their own songs.
“Everyone hears it, so use it wisely.”