What Are Orchestra Bells?

Orchestra bells belong to the percussion family of instruments. Percussionists play this instrument because it is one of the few melodic instruments available. The instrument’s sound is light and “tinkly,” but it cuts easily through a group.

These bells aren’t actually bells. Rather, they’re a collection of tuned, flat metal pieces attached to a frame. Aluminum is commonly used in student instruments, but tempered steel is used in high-quality professional versions. Percussion players strike these metal pieces with a mallet, which is usually made of wood, plastic, or hard rubber, to produce a pitch.

To understand why orchestra bells are called what they are, one must first understand the instrument’s history. As far back as four thousand years ago, monks in China performed on pear-shaped bells known as cymbalas. These bronze bells were suspended from rails and hung from the ceiling. Glockenspiels were the name given to various versions of this instrument because “glocken” means “bells” and “spiel” means “set” in German.

Glockenspiels were made for both church and home use the 14th century, and people began to add key mechanisms to them so that they could play more complex parts, such as chords. The Dutch replaced the bells with flat pieces of metal that were much easier to tune in the 17th century. These glockenspiels were inspired the metallophones that east Asian musicians had created. Musicians added keywork to these instruments as well, but the twentieth century, musicians preferred mallet-struck versions because they found that striking the bars with hammers produced a better tone. The term “orchestra bells” refers to the original design of glockenspiels as well as the eventual fusion of these instruments with Asian metallophones.

Composers use the instruments in concert, marching and military bands, percussion pieces, and even jazz works, so the name “orchestra bells” may be misleading to some. Orchestra bells are frequently paired with flutes and other upper woodwind instruments, as well as metal percussion instruments like the triangle and windchimes, composers. Solos on the orchestra bells are occasionally performed musicians. In Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte, K. 620, the bells play the role of Papageno, the bird catcher, and have magical properties in the story.

The bells of today’s orchestras are fully chromatic instruments. They’re set up in the same way that a piano keyboard is. Orchestra bells typically handle pitches written in the G3 to C5 range. The bells, on the other hand, are high-pitched transposing instruments that sound two octaves higher than the written pitch the player reads.

The bells are frequently confused with orchestra chimes, which are also made of metal but are tubular in shape, hung vertically, and have a much lower pitch. People also mistake orchestra bells for xylophones, which are set up and played in the same way as bells but are made of wood rather than metal. Another misunderstanding is the difference between bells and handbells, which are single bells capable of only one pitch and are thus used choirs of musicians to create full melodies and chords.