Tubular bells

Brief description

  • Name: Tubular bells
  • Spelling
    • German: Röhrenglocken
    • French: Cloches, tubes de cloches
    • Italian: Campane tubolari
  • Classification: Idiophone, percussion tube, percussion instrument with definite pitch. When arranged in keyboard fashion they are also classed as a mallet-played instrument
  • Stand: Metal frame on wheels; Height: 180–220 cm (depending on the range)
  • Tubes: Steel, chrome finished brass; diameter: 3–4 cm; wall thickness: 1–2 cm; Length varies according to pitch: approx. 75 cm (F5, shortest tube) – approx. 155 cm (C4, longest tube)
  • Tuning: According to the orchestral tuning norms, a rack is generally tuned to 442 hertz
  • Suspension rails
  • Damper pedal: Damper pedal rod, pedal crossbar
  • Weight: With frame: approx. 84–100 kg (1½ octaves)
  • Chime mallets: Oak, plywood, plastic, rubber; Handle length approx. 25–30 cm; Hammer head (diameter): 3–4.5 cm; Length: 11 cm
  • Various other mallets

Of the various types of bell that have been used in the orchestra over the centuries the tubular bells, arranged chromatically as symphonic chimes, have become part of standard instrumentation in the modern opera and symphony orchestra. Their main role was to act as a substitute for bells in the orchestra, but nowadays their timbre is valued in its own right. Tubular bells were developed as an easily portable instrument for everyday use in the orchestra. Their sound was intended to be as close as possible to church bells, a target that they never reached, however. They are used in the higher register, while the lower register is covered by the bell plates, although the sound characteristics of the two instruments are very different. In the past, solid steel bars were also used as bell substitutes.


Early history of bells

Asia is the home of cast bells. The Chinese were already using bells of various sizes in the orchestra over 4,000 years ago. In a 2,400 year-old trench in the province of Hopeh in China 65 bronze bells of various sizes (between 12 and 150 cm high) were found. These bells did not have the rounded form usual today. Bells spread from India to the Near East. Archeologists have found specimens of Assyrian origin that are up to 3,000 years old. There is evidence that bronze bells existed as early as the 2nd millennium BC. The first bronze bells of a larger size were cast in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the 9th century BC. In early civilizations the sound of bells was thought to avert danger and other trouble. They have retained this reputation, along with their role as a signaling instrument, to this day.


Bells reached southern Europe along the Mediterranean. In ancient Rome small bells (tintinabulum) were used chiefly as signaling instruments, in the Roman baths, for instance. The first bells of a larger size that could be rung were reputedly permitted by Bishop Paulinus of Nola in about 400 BC.

The art of casting bells came to northern Europe as a result of the spread of Christianity and was practiced first by the Celts on the British Isles. Coptic monks in Egypt were the first practitioners of the young Christian religion to master the art of bell-founding, which they did long before 500 AD. Irish monks learned it from them so that by the 5th century there were distinguished bell-founders among their number. The most prominent of these was St. Fortchern of Trim, died ca. 490 AD, the patron saint of bell-founders. It was not until much later that the job of casting bells was transferred from monks to professional founders. The custom of ringing bells in specially built towers began to spread from the 6th century onward.

The Middle Ages and modern times

In the 9th century, hemispherical, ”bulb-shaped” bells were very common. In the 11th century the most common shape was the ”beehive”, and in the 12th century the ”sugar-loaf”. In the 13th century the art of bell-founding finally reached perfection with the development of the ”Gothic” bell, the shape of which reflects the beauty of its tone. At the same time the outside of the bell began to be decorated with ornamentation, embellishments, illustrations and the name of the founder. Since the development of the ”Gothic” bell there have been no further improvements. The art of casting was a jealously guarded secret in the foundries which was passed down from one generation to the next.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the biggest bells were cast, weighing more than 20 tons (the ”Pummerin” in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna weighs 20 tons and sounds a C2). The largest bell ever cast is the ”Tsar Bell” with a weight of 198 tons and a height of 6.14 m. After it was cast in 1733 it was badly damaged (an 11 ton fragment broke off) and was never rung. It is now on display in the Kremlin in Moscow.

Bells in the orchestra

In the 18th century it was extremely rare to use bells in the orchestra. It is assumed that J. S. Bach was the first to use them. It was particularly in dramatic contexts in opera that the sound of bells was frequently required, but the use of church bells was impractical owing to their size and weight. To solve this problem, substitute instruments were made. A bell with the pitch C2 weighs 20 tons. In some large theater buildings a set of church bells was installed, for example in the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, the Grand Opera in Paris and the Dresden Opera.

In the 19th century many attempts were made to make the sound of church bells available to opera and symphony orchestras by means of more manageable instruments. Success was achieved with various metal objects, experiments being carried out with hanging plates, bars, discs and vessels. Long piano strings thickly wrapped and amplified with resonators were also tried out. Many of these experiments took place in Bayreuth (for Richard Wagner’s Parsifal) and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

These efforts had as their aim the combination of two aspects: on the one hand the most accurate imitation possible of the bell sound with its high proportion of overtones; and on the other a sound with a definite pitch.

Tubular bells

Tubular bells first appeared between 1860 and 1870 in Paris.

The Englishman John Harrington patented tubular bells made of bronze. Arthur Sullivan may have been the first composer to score for tubular bells in the orchestra, in 1886. In the early 20th century tubular bells were also incorporated into theater organs to produce effects.

In the modern orchestra

Tubular bells as a substitute for church bells were first used by Giuseppe Verdi in his operas Il trovatore (1853) and Un ballo in maschera (1859) and by Giacomo Puccini in Tosca (1900).

It was in Britain and the USA that tubular bells were first arranged chromatically and in keyboard fashion on a frame, where they form symphonic chimes. This innovation created new possibilities for playing techniques and tasks, which have been exploited and expanded especially by composers in the second half of the 20th century.

Although the original task of tubular bells in opera was to imitate bells, their own timbre has become increasingly valued in modern music. For the formation of melody they have only been used for short melody formulas, in which the notes are damped one after the other. Electro-acoustic tubular bells are also being used more and more often.

A comparison between bells and tubular bells (chimes)

Characteristics of the structure and perception of the bell sound

As with all idiophones the sound of bells consists of two components: the strike note (attack) and the resonance. The composition of the sound of ”real” (i.e. church) bells is especially complicated. It consists of a mixture of a great many individual tones that sound at different pitches and different volumes and resonate for different lengths of time; in other words, it is a tone mixture. Many of these individual tones (partials) are inharmonic, i.e. they are not in a whole number ratio to the fundamental. The ear perceives them as a fluctuating sound, in other words, it has problems picking out a definite pitch from the various different sounds it hears. To compound matters, the intensity of the overtones can far exceed that of the fundamental pitch.

In our perception of ringing bells, two different impressions predominate: the strike note (attack), a short, forceful, metallic sound at a single pitch; and the resonance, long, resounding tones at various pitches (the fundamental). The pitch of the bell is determined by the strike note, which lies an octave above the fundamental. Along with the major or minor third it is the fundamental that dominates the resounding note as it is perceived. It is for this reason that we speak of minor third or major third bells. Minor third bells are more common.

In contrast, the perceived pitch of a musical instrument is clearly identifiable and usually corresponds to the frequency of the lowest (1st) partial.

Strictly speaking, then, bells occupy a position somewhere between percussion instruments with definite pitch and those with indefinite pitch.

Tubular bells

Tubular bells share only some of the sound characteristics of bells and the structure of their sound differs from that of church bells on which they were modeled. These differences are due to the fact that tubular bells have always been made to meet musical requirements as well. Their manufacture pursued one of two main aims: either to duplicate the richness of overtones of church bells, or to make tubes with a clear pitch in the musical sense. The latter aim proved the more popular since it served to establish the chimes as an orchestral instrument in their own right.

One of the main differences between the way bells and chimes are made is the fact that the top and bottom of the latter are identical. This favors a relatively harmonic structure of partials which is suitable for musical purposes and aids combinations with other orchestra instruments. Church bells contain a large number of inharmonic partials.

Strike note and resonance

The strike note is a short, forceful, metallic sound impression at a single pitch, an octave above the fundamental; the resonance is a long, resounding note rich in overtones which is dominated by two pitches, the strike note and the fundamental, which sounds an octave lower. This has led to disagreement on which octave tubular bells are really in. Some people contend that the resonance (which is an octave lower than the strike note) is the actual pitch. However, studies have shown that the strike note (an octave above the fundamental of the resounding note) is the actual pitch. The pitches of the strike notes, which are those written in the score, therefore range from C4 to F5, or from F3 to F5 on a two-octave instrument.

Like all metal idiophones (metallophones) tubular bells’ notes decay only slowly, in other words their resonance is relatively long.

Unlike (church) bells, the resonance of which is dominated by the third, tubular bells are made so that the fifth (above the strike note) is also audible beside the fundamental (an octave below the strike note). This makes the instrument more suitable for playing together with other musical instruments.



Tubular bells are housed in a stand about 180 cm high (90 cm wide and 70 cm deep) and consisting of a base with wheels, a frame and two suspension rails. The chromatically tuned tubes are arranged in two rows in keyboard fashion and hung on straps from the two suspension rails.

The back row is composed of those tubes that correspond to the black keys of the piano and is set about 20 cm higher than the front row, so that the tubes can be reached easily by the musician.


Depending on the range, a set of symphonic chimes consists of either 18 tubes (1½ octaves: C4–F5) or 25 tubes (2 octaves: F3–F5).

The tubes are both vibration generator and resonator. The frequencies of tubes, plates and bars are in inverse proportion to the square of their length. For example, the frequency of a tube that is 70.7 cm long is theoretically roughly half that of a 50 cm long tube of the same thickness. At the same time the frequencies are in direct proportion to the square of the thickness; the thinner the plate or the wall thickness of the tube, the lower the pitch. The pitch (of the striked note) is therefore dependent on the diameter, wall thickness and length of the tube. On a standard 1½ octave set of chimes the tube lengths range from about 75 cm (shortest tube, pitch F5) to 155 cm (longest tube, pitch C4). The corresponding tube diameter is 3.8 cm, the wall thickness 1.5 cm. If one of these parameters changes, e.g. the wall thickness, either the length or the diameter of the tube must change, too. As a rule, the tubes’ diameter is between 3–4 cm and their wall thickness between 1–2 cm.

On short metal tubes the fundamental dominates, so the sound is not bell-like. The sound of long metal tubes, on the other hand, contains a great many partials, so that their sound is similar to bells.

Damping system

At the base of the stand there is a damper pedal which is connected to the damping system by means of rods. Operating the damper pedal effects all the tubes simultaneously.

The damping pedal works in the same way as on the piano: a depressed pedal allows the notes to rensonate and when released dampens the tubes. The mechanism is as follows: if the pedal is not depressed the damping system is in the upright position and does not touch any of the tubes. If the pedal is depressed, the damping system turns to the horizontal position along with the damping material and damps all the tubes.


Tubular bells are struck with hammer-like mallets. Three degrees of hardness are usual: soft, medium and hard. The heads are made of wood, plywood or plastic. Depending on the hardness they are covered with either leather or felt.

Shaft length: approx. 30 cm. The head is hammer-shaped; it is 3.6–4.2 cm thick and about 11 cm long.

Metal hammers are used to produce a particularly hard sound, although there is a danger that they will damage the tubes.

For other special effects vibraphone mallets (for rolls) or glockenspiel mallets (for a slender sound) are used.


As a rule the strike note is notated. It is one octave higher and the bell’s actual pitch. The sound is therefore as written, without transposition. The pitches written for tubular bells always range from F3 to F5.

In the strike note a tone dominates which is an octave higher than the fundamental; both strike and fundamental are audible in the resonance, the latter is slightly more prominent.

Legend has it that there have even been arguments over which is the ”correct” pitch (-:


1½ octaves
C4 – F5 (18 tubes)

2 octaves
F3 – F5 (25 tubes)

2 1/3 octaves (philharmonic tubular bells)
Eb3 – G5 (29 tubes)

Sound production

The tubes are tuned chromatically and arranged in two rows in keyboard fashion, the back row containing the pitches that correspond to the black keys of the piano. The back row is set about 20 cm higher than the front one so that the tubes can be struck by the player. The best results are achieved by striking the tube near the top. The percussionist uses one or two hammers. Variations in timbre can be achieved with hammers of differing hardness and weight.

Because in many works in the traditional repertoire only a few pitches are required only these tubes are hung separately on the frame. This makes life easier for the musician, but in this case the damping effect is also not possible. In such cases the chimes serve as substitute bells.

The hardness of the hammer influences the timbre as follows: softer mallets bring the lower partials to the fore, the high partials are not set in vibration. This makes the sound softer, rounder and more gentle. Hard mallets allow the higher partials to dominate over the lower, making the sound brighter, harder and more incisive.

A particular difficulty facing the musician, who plays standing up, is how to keep an eye on the large instrument, the music and the conductor at the same time. Long, rapid sequences can only be played from memory.

The function of the damper mechanism

The damper pedal has a latch which keeps the damping system open so that the tubes can ring freely. The damping mechanism is activated by lightly pressing the pedal, which results in all the tubes being damped by the revolving damper rail at the same time. If the musician wishes to damp individual notes while allowing others to resound, he or she uses his hand.

Playing Techniques

Single strokes + Damped

Single note leather, plastic, felt.

Great dynamic range possible.


Repetitions and dynamic repetitions.


Great crescendo possible.

Grace notes



Clusters + Wire brushes

Philharmonic tubular bells

Sound characteristics

Bright, solemn, eerie, metallic, resounding, wafting, rich in overtones, vibrating, lustrous, mellow, distant.

Strike note and resonance

The strike note is a short, forceful, metallic sound impression at a single pitch, an octave above the fundamental; the resonance is a long, resounding note rich in overtones in which the pitch of the fundamental is more prominent. The fundamental sounds an octave lower and is audible in the resonance along with many other higher notes. The pitches written in the score refer to the strike note and not the fundamental. Like all metal idiophones (metallophones) tubular bells’ notes decay slowly, that is, they resonate for a relatively long time.

Different mallet types

The hardness of the hammer-like mallet influences the timbre as follows: softer mallets bring the lower partials to the fore, the high partials are not set in vibration. This makes the sound softer, rounder and more gentle. Hard mallets allow the higher partials to dominate over the lower, making the sound brighter, harder and more incisive.

Hardness of the hammers

The following connection exists between the hardness of the mallets and the sound: Softer hammers support the lower partials, the high partials are not brought to sound. This makes the sound softer, rounder and more tender. Hard mallets force the higher partials more than the lower ones, thus rendering the sound brighter, harder and sharper.

Sound combinations

Tubular bells are used principally to perform two tasks: as a substitute for church bells and to add color. The practice of combining them with metallophones of all kinds was inspired by the music of eastern Asia and was adopted by orchestra music in the 20th century.

The extent to which tubular bells blend with other orchestra instruments depends on the sound structure. They are made in such a way that their harmonic series is as harmonic as possible which favors combinations with other orchestra instruments that have a harmonic structure of partials. Tubular bells still retain inharmonic partials, however, so that the bell-like character of the sound, which contains a much larger proportion of inharmonic components, is not lost.

Tubular bells and other orchestra instruments

These properties mean that a particularly good blend is achieved with metal idiophones with definite pitch: glockenspiel, vibraphone, gong.

In addition, they combine well with all instruments that have a sound composed of attack and resonance: gong, cymbals, tam-tam, timpani, harp, piano.

Tubular bells are always distinctly audible because their timbre is different from that of all the other orchestra instruments. A large dynamic spectrum, from extremely soft pp tremolos to great crescendos, is possible. Combinations particularly with the brass and woodwind playing fat chords create a stately, festive and magnificent setting. In such cases the brass support the strike note with sforzando attack and the resonance with sustained notes.

To achieve a particularly powerful sound, tubular bells and plate bells are played simultaneously (often by the same musician).

Repertoire (selection)

Orchestral tubular bells

  • Carl Maria von Weber

    • Der Freischütz (1821)
  • Gioacchino Rossini

    • Guillaume Tell (1829)
  • Giacomo Meyerbeer

    • Les Huguenots (1836)
  • Giuseppe Verdi

    • Rigoletto (1851), Troubadour (1853), Un ballo in maschera (1859)
  • Modest Mussorgski

    • Boris Godunov (1869, 1872, 1874)
  • Ruggero Leoncavallo

    • The Bajazzo (1892)
  • Gustav Mahler

    • Symphony no. 2 (1895)
  • Claude Debussy

    • Ibéria (1910)
  • Anton Webern

    • Six pieces for orchestra (1910, 1913)
  • Giacomo Puccini

    • Tosca (1900), Turandot (1926)
  • Alexander Scriabin

    • Le Poème de’l exstase (1908)
  • Richard Strauss

    • Die schweigsame Frau (1935)
  • Edgard Varèse

    • Ionisation (1931)
  • Paul Hindemith

    • Metamorphoses about a theme of C.M. von Weber (1944)
  • Aaron Copland

    • Symphony no. 3 (1946)
  • Carl Orff

    • Antigonae (1949)
  • Olivier Messiaen

    • Turangalila (1949)
  • Karl Amadeus Hartmann

    • Symphonies no. 7 and 8
  • Hans Werner Henze

    • Il rei cervo (1956, 1962)
  • Pierre Boulez

    • Pli selon pli (1962)

Tubular bells in ensembles

  • Pierre Boulez
    • Improvisation sur Mallarmé (1958)