What Are Orchestra Bells?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

Orchestra bells are a musical instrument in the percussion family. This instrument is one of the few melodic instruments on which percussionists perform. The sound of the instrument is very light and "tinkly," but it cuts easily through an ensemble.

Composers often pair orchestra bells with flutes and other woodwind instruments.
Composers often pair orchestra bells with flutes and other woodwind instruments.

These bells truly are not bells at all. Rather, they are sets of tuned, flat pieces of metal attached to a frame. Student-level instruments often are made from aluminum, but high-quality professional versions are usually made of tempered steel. Percussion players make these pieces of metal sound a pitch by striking them with a mallet, most commonly of wood, plastic or hard rubber.

The most famous use of orchestra bells occurs in one of Mozart's operas.
The most famous use of orchestra bells occurs in one of Mozart's operas.

To understand why orchestra bells have the name they do, a person first must grasp the history of the instrument. Monks performed on sets of pear-shaped bells, or cymbalas, in China as far back as four thousand years ago. These bells were made of bronze and suspended from rails. Forms of this instrument eventually became known as glockenspiels, as "glocken" means "bells" and "spiel" means "set" in German.

By the 14th century, glockenspiels were produced for both church and home use, and people began to add key mechanisms to the glockenspiels in order to play more complex parts, such as those that included chords. In the 17th century, the Dutch replaced the bells with flat pieces of metal, which were much easier to tune. These versions of the glockenspiel were fashioned after the metallophones east Asian musicians had developed. Musicians also added keywork to these instruments, but because musicians found that striking the bars with hammers produced a better tone, they preferred mallet-struck versions by the 20th century. The name "orchestra bells" thus reflects the original construction of glockenspiels and the eventual merger between these instruments and the Asian metallophones.

The name "orchestra bells" is a little misleading to some individuals, as composers use the instruments in concert, marching and military bands, percussion pieces and even jazz works. Composers often pair orchestra bells with flutes and other upper woodwind instruments, as well as other metal percussion instruments such as the triangle and windchimes. Musicians also sometimes perform solos on the orchestra bells. Perhaps the most famous use of the instrument in a true orchestra is in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera, Die Zauberflöte, K. 620, in which the bells characterize Papageno, the bird catcher, and have magical properties in the story.

Modern orchestra bells are fully chromatic instruments. They are set up similarly to the piano keyboard. In terms of range, orchestra bells usually handle pitches written from G3 to C5. The bells are high-pitched, transposing instruments, however, sounding two octaves above the written pitch the player reads.

People sometimes confuse the bells with orchestra chimes, which are also made of metal but which are tubular in shape, are hung vertically and have a much lower pitch. People also sometimes confuse orchestra bells with xylophones, which are set up and played similarly to the bells but which are made of wood instead of metal. Another confusion is between the bells and handbells, which are single bells capable of playing only one pitch and which therefore are played by choirs of musicians to obtain full melodies and chords.

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