Titanic’s final number: Logistics, proximity and a good ear

From the moment Titanic had begun to take on water until about 2:17 a.m., the ship had been sinking steadily, but with only a slight list. It would have been possible for the band to play during those hours. The music stands would have stood erect, the cellists’ chairs would have stayed in place, the standing bandsmen would have stood without wavering, and the sheets would have stayed on the stands without slipping off.

What happened next? The band’s last moments have been the subject of many discussions. When reading accounts, consider the survivor’s proximity to the ship and whether their story works logistically. Oh, and consider their “ear”.


So, at 2:17 wireless operator Harold Bride was washed off the ship on a collapsible lifeboat when the bow slipped beneath the waves. At that time he heard the band playing. For the next several minutes until the ship sank the angle got steeper by the second. Within three minutes the ship had completely sunk (estimated at 2:20 a.m., April 15).

The ever-increasing angle of the ship as it tipped forward would have made performance impossible in the final moments. Not even counting the human element of distraction (the realization that this was the end), consider the music stands, chairs, one’s footing, and gravity pulling the sheet music away. Whoever suggested that the waves had engulfed the musicians while they continued to play was being dramatic and had no understanding of the logistics of performance.


Survivor Caroline Brown watched the event from a lifeboat. “The band played marching from deck to deck, and as the ship went under I could still hear the music. The musicians were up to their knees in water the last time I saw them.” From her account one would believe Titanic had a brass band that continued to march until they were wading through water. However, all the musicians but the pianist played strings, and we know the cellists and double bassist weren’t marching. In my opinion, this account was a product of Brown’s lively imagination.

Survivor A. H. Barkworth remained on board until the last. “I do not wish to detract from the bravery of anybody, but I might mention that when I first came on deck the band was playing a waltz. The next time I passed where the band had been stationed, the members had thrown down their instruments and were not to be seen.” Barkworth painted a more realistic picture.

The accounts of eyewitness survivors who were in lifeboats cannot be considered nearly as reliable as those who were on board. Yes, they experienced the event in person, from the vantage point of their lifeboats. But when weighing the evidence on the band’s final performance, including which piece they played in the last moments, proximity to the ship matters.

A Good Ear

Not only did Harold Bride hear the band playing in Titanic‘s last moments, he was able to identify the music he heard, though only with the cryptic, unexplained title ‘Autumn’. This music had had such a big impact on him that he mentioned it several times while giving his oral account of the event. He kept coming back to the haunting memory of that music, it had touched him so.

Why is his account so reliable? Besides the fact that he was close enough to the ship to be a trustworthy witness, he had been born with an excellent sense of hearing. He was a wireless operator. His livelihood depended on his acute, innate auditory sense. Not only would he have employed this talent while he worked, but every life experience he had would have been imbued with a memory of what he had heard, as well as what he saw. All through the telling of his experience of the night of April 14-15 was the impression the music had made on him. Because of Bride’s reliable ear it can be believed with certainty that at the moment Titanic’s bow went under, Autumn music was in the air.

To be continued…

11 thoughts on “Titanic’s final number: Logistics, proximity and a good ear

  1. I think that Birde's testimony about 'Autumn' says actually nothing to us. What 'Autumn' song was he saying about? No one ever bothered to check about which it really was, as long as Harold was alive. Now we have only guesses. Was he saying about 'Songe d'Automne' by Joyce? We will never make sure.You write that titanic musicians were only piano or string musicians. But was there maybe someone who was playing the some type of fluete. In the movie 'A Night to Remember' there is one musician with such instrument.


  2. You are right about survivor testimony and people not bothering to ask specific questions while they were alive. There was one lady who spoke of hearing 'Nearer, My God, To Thee' and the interviewer asked her, \”Which one?\” and she answered as if it was a preposterous question, \”Well, the one we sang at church!\” I would have asked her to sing the tune. Such lost opportunities. I suspect that in 'A Night to Remember' the movie producer didn't check which instruments were in the band.


  3. Rebekah, I think you might need to re-examine the TIMING of Barkworth's last sighting of the band, since it does not seem to have occurred during the ship's final moments as you seem to believe. Indeed, I think a far better explanation for his sighting of the \”abandomned instruments\” is the one postulated on my own website – namely, that the bandsmen put their instruments down for a few minutes so that they could retrieve their lifebelts from their cabins. Also, Harold Bride is not widely regarded as being a particularly reliable witness, since he changed his story on multiple topics every time he related his Titanic account. Speaking for myself, I give far greater weight to the NMGTT stories told by people in the lifeboats, since they were sitting quietly and listening to what was happening on board the nearby ship – whereas the people who were actually on board the vessel had good reason not to be paying close attention to musical selections: i.e. they were preoccupied with thoughts of saving their own lives from the hungry sea within the next few minutes. If \”Autumn\” was truly played that night, we should expect more period corroboration from other survivors – but there is none. Also, don't forget that Titanic's bandsmen were prepared to play hymns and anthems \”of all nations,\” so they could easily have known several different versions of NMGTT. (I suspect that English and American travelers who attended church services in each other's countries would have been familiar with both versions of the hymn, which might account for the wide recognition of the tune that was played that night.)


  4. George, Thanks for bringing up the issue of timing because one other has questioned this. My question is more about the general consensus on the time Titanic's bow went under, followed by the time Titanic sank. I've seen the 2:17 a.m. and 2:20 a.m. timing, but I'm not sure I believe the entire mass of the ship could sink in three minutes. The water was unusually calm, and there was the point of the absence of suction. I'm wondering about the thoughts of those who know better than I?


  5. \”I have read several accounts of how the band played while the ship went down 'Nearer My God to Thee'. I do not wish to detract from the bravery of anybody, but I might mention that when I first came on deck the band was playing a waltz. The next time I passed where the band had been stationed, the members of it had thrown down their instruments and were not to be seen. But I shall never forget the fierce jarring notes of that waltz they played.''I looked up Barkworth and this was the most I was able to find about his memory of the band. He did not recount his memory in any chronological order. It is like an appendix to the story he told of how he survived. Do you have a source of a more complete account? I'm interested by his word 'thrown' – if I saw instruments carefully set down I wouldn't presume to say the musicians had thrown them down. I wonder what the instruments looked like to lead Barkworth to assume they had been thrown down? Plus, he does put some perspective on timing: he mentioned 'as the ship went down'. I gather from his account that most of his friends believed the ship would stay afloat until the moment they decided to jump, which narrows the timeframe. Your theory is very interesting to me and I have some ideas to support it, but first I plan to put forth two theories of my own, second favourite first, then favourite, then I'll comment on your theory.


  6. Hi, Rebekah. The 2:17 time can only be approximated, since nobody was closely timing the final minutes of the sinking. Since the actual bow and forecastle deck of the Titanic was already submerged when collapsible D was launched at 2:05, though, the 2:17 time is generally considered to be the approximate time that the bridge and forward end of the boat deck submerged. (It could just as easily have been 2:15 or thereabouts, but nobody will ever know for certain.)


  7. Part 2. :-)Rebekah, the Barkworth interview you're referring to is the one that was published in the New York Sun on April 25th. However, I have a second lengthy interview with Barkworth that was published in England on May 18th. It says: \”Questioned as to the band on the Titanic playing up to the last minutes after the boats had been lowered away, Mr. Barkworth said: 'I returned to my cabin to try and get some things but found the door locked. The band at that time was playing a waltz tune; but when I returned from the cabin, their instruments were thrown down. This was some little time before I left the ship; whether the band commenced to play again I cannot say, for they were on the opposite side of the ship to that I climbed over. They might have returned to their instruments.' \”Regarding Barkworth's statement that the instruments were \”thrown down,\” I think you might be reading too much into the term \”thrown,\” since in numerous scenes in the Sherlock Holmes novels Dr. Watson says that Holmes \”threw himself into his chair.\” Conan Doyle obviously meant that Holmes sat down abruptly instead of flinging himself across the room to land in his chair. When Barkworth used the term \”thrown,\” I think he merely meant that the bandsmen's instruments had been abandoned and were lying out of the way on one side of the deck (or perhaps on deck chairs). I don't think Barkworth meant to imply that the instruments had been tossed carelessly on the deck because they were no longer needed. Rebekah, I think it's truly commendable that you're exploring a number of different scenarios involving the bandsmen. (I had mistakenly concluded that you were trying to build one single ironclad case utilizing the specific eyewitness accounts that you were quoting above, and I just wanted to draw your attention to some facts about those interviews that I felt you might not know about.)


  8. George, Thanks for expressing your concern about my choice of survivor accounts. I would never presume to build any case based on two quotations. The nature of blogging is to keep it short, and I usually choose one or two examples to represent a kind of trend I see. The two I chose for this entry demonstrate the contrast between the idealistic stories that came from survivors who experienced the horror from their lifeboats and the pragmatic stories that came from those who remained on the ship. One lady said she saw from her lifeboat all the men kneeling in prayer as strains of Nearer, My God, To Thee floated across the water. As you mention, I suspect the people who remained on the ship were busying themselves with the notion of surviving and weren't doing anything so lofty as listening to the music or kneeling en masse in prayer. I chose Brown's account to represent a type of \”survivor memory\” that to me seems to inject a certain dramatic quality, one which I find difficult to fully believe. Brown's was easy to discount because she recalled the band marching from deck to deck, and it would have been impossible for a piano and string ensemble to march.


  9. Hi, Rebekah. I hope you'll bear with me while I make several observations.In choosing the Brown account (which is easy to disprove) as representative of the NMGTT accounts, I feel you do a disservice to those survivors whose first-hand (not newspaper) accounts of NMGTT are not so easy to disprove. In other words, you've automatically (and IMO unjustifiably) placed the \”NMGTT story\” in a subordinate position as compared to \”Autumn,\” which – after all – is a tune that was only mentioned in a single period newspaper interview that is no more reliable than any other newspaper description of the sinking. Who can say if the New York Times reporter might have \”jazzed up\” Bride's account by adding the \”Autumn\” info himself? (After all, another reporter certainly did the same thing by jazzing up Brown's newspaper account.) I also disagree with your decision to call the lifeboat NMGTT accounts \”idealistic\” while calling the ship non-NMGTT accounts \”pragmatic,\” since IMO that wording is equally slanted toward minimizing the reliability of the people who listened to the band's music from the safety of their lifeboats. Just my own opinions. 🙂


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