Why ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ Became the Soundtrack of American Graduations

Graduations just wouldn’t sound the same without the tune.
You know what she's listening to.
You know what she's listening to. / Boy_Anupong/Moment/Getty Images

Graduation season is fully underway, and with this special time of year comes a nostalgic and quite familiar tune. In high school gymnasiums and university stadiums throughout the United States, Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1” fills the halls, just as it has for decades. But how did this particular song become the soundtrack of American graduations?

It has a surprisingly royal past. Edward Elgar composed the song in 1901; King Edward VII heard it and requested that he play the tune at his 1902 coronation. The song’s title, “Pomp and Circumstance,” draws from a memorable line in Shakespeare’s Othello: “Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!” It was, as the quote suggests, originally intended to represent war and its glory, particularly the power of England (if you’ve ever completed secondary education, you may feel that that journey is quite close to feeling like a battlefield.)

England, as we now know, wasn’t the final destination for Elgar’s famous work. The tune made its way across the pond when the composer received an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1905. Yale’s ceremony featured an array of instrumental masterpieces from a variety of classical artists. But “Pomp and Circumstance” was the only one that caught on in such a substantial way. Princeton University then used it in 1907; the University of Chicago followed in 1908; and Columbia University added it in 1913.

Other schools noticed that the Ivy’s were incorporating the song into their commencement ceremonies and it continued to spread from there. It’s a fitting musical backdrop to such a momentous, often bittersweet occasion like a graduation: The song has the uncanny ability to sound joyous and melancholy all at once, both feelings that someone graduating may strongly identify with. 

It also helps that the track is royalty-free, so even the smallest schools can use it to carry on the tradition without having to shell out.

Read More Stories About Music: