The Subtle Impact of “Pomp and Circumstance”
Why is this now ubiquitous graduation march so significant?
Posted May 12, 2017
This week I will join millions of Americans as we participate in the common annual gathering known as graduation. Throughout April and May, auditoriums and stadiums alike will see academic regalia, student speeches, honorary degrees, decorated caps, keynote speakers, air horns, rituals, and, of course, music.
Arguably one of the more ubiquitous aspects of any commencement ceremony (at least here in the U.S.) is the endless playing of the trio section of Edward Elgar’s March No. 1 during the processional. Although many may not be familiar with this particular title, you are likely familiar with the often-used one of “Pomp and Circumstance” or “The Graduation March.”
With its regal melody, warm tone colors, and stately duple meter tempo, Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” has infused the fabric of the American graduation ceremony for the past 100 years. Although musicians may at times bemoan the slow, endless, looping repetitiveness of this trio, it serves several important functions in for this rite of intellectual passage:
- It establishes an emotional tone. More so than almost any other sensory stimulus, music has the unique ability to color an experience. The mood of a room can shift based on what is playing in the background. In the case of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the musical coloring created by the regal melody, warm tone colors, and stately duple meter tempo establishes a tone of solemnity and dignity as the soon-to-be graduates process into the room.
- It serves to coordinate a shared group experience. Ethnomusicologist Dr. Michael Clayton outlined four functions music holds (i.e., her identified and defined different reasons why humans listen to or play music). One such role of music is the coordination of physical, physiological, and emotional action. In other words, music has the ability to bring people together physically (e.g., by dancing together) and emotionally. By creating a certain emotional space during a graduation ceremony, “Pomp and Circumstance” serves to coordinate a shared emotional experience between graduates, teachers, administrators, and family members as they participate in and witness this institutional ceremony.
- It marks an important social institution. Certain traditions have become synonymous with graduation in the US. The wearing of academic regalia, the throwing of the cap, the turning of the tassel, and, yes, the opening processional to “Pomp and Circumstance.” Traditions matter as they reinforce our social and cultural values and bring people who share such values together. Elgar’s trio now functions in the capacity, as a tradition of graduation and an annual reminder of the values we share regarding this intellectual rite of passage.
- It facilitates nostalgia. Music connects to our emotional memories in an intense way. As family members listen to “Pomp and Circumstance” while the graduates process in, they may find themselves thinking back on their own graduation, what it meant for them, and other memories associated with the experience. In other words, as you listen to this ceremonious trio, you may find yourself feeling a bit nostalgic.
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