The carillon is one of the most public of instruments. Situated in bell towers in the heart of public spaces, carillonneurs perform for entire communities. Though all who wander near the tower will hear the music, most will never know who it is playing the instrument. As performers hidden from view, carillonneurs strive to convince audiences that we are not machines playing the same tunes each day; we are real humans capable of expression and dynamic variation with lots of diverse repertoire.
Of approximately 600 carillons worldwide, North America is home to 185 such instruments distributed across universities, parks, churches, cities, and even mobile carillons on wheels. Though there are many kinds of bell instruments, a carillon consists of at least 23 tuned bells and is played from a keyboard that allows expression through variation of touch. The instrument is traditionally played solo, with the hands and feet, utilizing a keyboard and pedalboard that resemble a giant piano.
The carillon was born in the Low Countries of Europe about 500 years ago. The instrument emerged from medieval bell towers that originally functioned as signaling mechanisms to the local inhabitants. The bells would communicate not just the time of day, but civil and spiritual events: calls to prayer, the arrival of visitors, warnings such as the outbreak of a fire. In the early 20th century, as technical keyboard innovations began to allow for the expression of touch, the carillon began to develop as a concert instrument. Today carillonneurs perform all kinds of music on the bells: original compositions, classical arrangements, jazz standards, pop tunes, folk songs, film music—anything and everything that our public will enjoy.
Each Instrument is Unique
Carillons come in all shapes and sizes. From 23 bells to 77 bells, these instruments range from massive tower installations that house the largest tuned bells in the world to instruments that could fit in your living room. Bells cast at different foundries throughout history each have their own unique sound; some with richer overtones, some with more resonance, a longer sound, some brighter, some warmer.
Most carillons in North America are tuned to equal-temperament, but many older instruments in Europe employ the mean-tone tuning system. Though some instruments are concert pitch, keyboards will often transpose up or down to suit the height of the tower. With transposition ranging from up an octave to down a perfect fourth, the same repertoire played on two different instruments can sound vastly different.
Just as a particular concert hall will have certain characteristics, the bell tower itself and the surrounding listening space will play a key role in the sound of each instrument. While some instruments are found in the heart of bustling cities, others are in parks or suburban neighborhoods protected from traffic noise. When towers are more open and allow the bells to be visibly seen from the ground, the strike of each bell will be heard more clearly. Alternatively, sounds will blend more in closed towers where the bells are hidden from view.
Compositions for carillon are sometimes written specifically for one particular carillon, but composers can also write in a way that ensures pieces can be effective on multiple instruments.
Musical Considerations when Composing for Carillon
The unique partials, or overtones, of bells are an important consideration. Unlike traditional Western string or wind instruments, bells have a very prominent minor-third overtone. There is additionally a hum tone that sounds one octave below the strike tone. It can be helpful to compare typical bell partials to the natural harmonic series. The following graphic illustrates this comparison for a C3 bell (one octave below middle C).
Bass bells are much richer in overtones than high bells. The chord C-E-G played in the bass bells will not sound like a major chord at all, but played in the upper register this chord will sound more “in tune.” Thinning out or spacing out chords can be more effective on carillon (C-G-E), especially when writing major chords. Minor chords and diminished chords, on other hand, will sound more natural in the lower registers of the instrument.
Decay of Sound
As a bell is struck, the strike tone is heard in the foreground, but this pitch decays quickly, leaving the hum tone and overtones to emerge. Once a bell is rung, there is no way to dampen the sound or silence the bell. Each bell will continue to ring as the vibrations naturally dissipate. (Though there is an adjustment mechanism on each key that will allow the carillonneur to hold the clapper against the bell after striking, thus muting the sound, most players will advise against this as it creates a rather ugly sound and is perhaps not good for the instrument.)
Larger bells will ring longer, up to about 30 seconds, before fully coming to rest. Smaller bells will not ring as long, sometimes only for a few seconds. Rapid harmonic changes in the bass will create a blurred sound; a walking bass line on a fast be-bop jazz standard, for instance, will not come across as intended.
Depending on the bell foundry, the same bell on two different carillons can have a very different decay of sound. For instance, English bells (Taylor, Gillett & Johnston) cast in the early-to-mid 20th century have a rather short decay of sound in the trebles, whereas French bells (Paccard) cast in the later half of the 20th century are exceptionally long sounding. Some repertoire is better suited to short-sounding bells or long-sounding bells.
The carillon has an incredible dynamic range, arguably more so than a piano. Through variation of touch, carillonneurs are able to strike each bell so softly that nobody can hear it, or loud enough to startle somebody walking by. Bigger bass bells have more dynamic range than small high bells. Higher bells, with less bell mass, can only reach a fraction of the volume of the bass bells. Thus, crescendos moving down the keyboard are often more effective than up the keyboard.
Composers and arrangers for the carillon like to “think upside down”; rather than give the singing melody line to the soprano, placing the melody in the bass bells, with the higher bells playing harmonic and rhythmic accompaniments, can be very effective.
Playing loud is easy; playing soft is more difficult. Due to the large keyfall (1.6-2.2 inches), playing a note pp will require the carillonneur to take time to prepare the note by moving the key partway down before striking. It can be very challenging or impossible to play fast and soft at the same time. (Exception: When playing repeated notes, the carillonneur can keep notes prepared and play rapid trills, tremolos, or ostinatos very quietly.)
Keeping the bass bells in balance with the treble bells is a consideration for both composers and performers. Loud passages in the bass will drown out figures in the upper register, but a passage in the high register marked ff will not sound loud without accompanying bass notes to give the power. On larger carillons especially, the dynamics will come from the bass.
It might sound preposterous that a good balance could ever be achieved, with bass bells weighing tens of thousands of pounds, and high bells as small as 10 lbs. But towers are actually designed to improve balance—by placing the bass bells lower in the tower, the sound of treble bells will carry farther when high up in the tower. In some towers, louvers are positioned in the openings of the belfry to magnify this effect. Louvers are angled slats that deflect sound down to the ground. These louvers will rein in the sound of the bass bells, placed lower in the tower, by deflecting their sound more sharply towards the ground. At the same time, the louvers will keep the sound of the small high bells from drifting up into the sky.
Still, it is important for composers to consider the balance of bass and treble bells. Even the biggest bass bell can be played pp when the performer is given time to prepare each note.
Audiences are also capable of improving their listening experience. If one is standing too close to the tower, the bass bells will often be heard too loud and the instrument will sound out of balance. The best listening areas are usually found further away from the tower. Every tower is different, so a general rule of thumb: Imagine the tower falls over on its side. Standing just beyond the range of the impact will result in a decent listening place, in addition to protecting you in case the tower does fall over!
If writing for a particular carillon, it will be important to determine the exact range of the instrument, as well as to hear sound samples to determine the musical properties of the bells. Manuals typically span the full length of the keyboard, and pedals typically duplicate the bottom two octaves of the instrument. Here are several common ranges:
Most compositions are written, or made playable, for four-octave carillon, C3 to C7, omitting the lowest C#3. Writing for this range will allow the piece to be played on most concert carillons. When writing for four and a half octaves, composers will often include substitutions for notes outside of the four-octave range, to make the piece playable on four-octave instruments.
Traditional technique asks the carillonneur to play each key with a closed fist, one note for each hand. Rapid passages of broken arpeggios that alternate hands (L-R-L-R…) are very idiomatic.
A four-note chord is easily realized with two hands and two feet. As keyboards have evolved and been made lighter over the 20th century, it has become additionally possible to play with open hands and fingers. Two notes, no more than a fourth apart, are easily playable with one hand. Passages can be difficult, though, when two-note chords are played in quick succession with one hand, especially when changes in hand position are required between the natural and chromatic keys. Clusters of three or four notes in one hand are also possible if the keys are all natural, or all chromatic.
It is possible, though unusual, to play two neighboring pedals simultaneously with one foot, provided they are both natural, or both chromatic.
Fast repeated notes are possible in the upper range with hands, but not as much in the lower range or with the pedals, as the clappers are bigger and heavier.
The keys on a carillon are much farther apart than on a piano—14 inches per octave, compared to 6.5 inches per octave. This makes rapid jumps in one hand between registers quite difficult; even jumping an octave quickly requires a lot of concentration.
Additionally, maintaining a large gap between the left and right hands can be challenging. Rapid independent movement in the left and right hand is best kept within two octaves between the two hands, so that the performer can better visualize both hands on the keyboard.
On larger carillons with 4.5 or more octaves, it can be difficult or impossible to play both the high register with the hands, and the lowest bass notes with the feet, at the same time. Large diagonal stretches are best kept within 3 or 4 octaves.
Carillon music is written on two staves, with the top staff for the manuals and the bottom staff for the pedals. Carillonneurs generally prefer to read the top staff in treble clef and the bottom staff in bass clef, and read 8va or 8vb beyond the third ledger line, rather than changing clef.
Rolled chords are very idiomatic to the carillon and can be noted in one of two ways:
- Open-handed roll
A roll with an arrow pointing up will indicate to play all the notes open-handed, sequentially from bottom to top (1-2-3…). These open-handed rolls are usually kept to three or four notes, but five or six notes are possible if the notes are all clustered together, as long as both open hands can prepare all notes simultaneously.
- Broken roll
A “lighting bolt” will indicate to alternate both hands with closed fists and play a broken roll. For a four-note chord, this means playing the bottom note first, then the third note, then the second, and then the fourth (1-3-2-4). A three-note chord would be played 2-1-3. Broken rolls are very idiomatic to the carillon and more traditional than the open-handed roll.
Tremolando, or tremolo, is another common carillon technique. Tremolos are often noted in early 20th-century Flemish compositions, to allow melodies in the upper registers to sing out over the bass. Tremolos are still used, though less frequently, in modern compositions, either to bring out melodies or for other effects. Tremolo is possible between two notes with two hands, or more notes with each hand playing a cluster. Carillonneurs can be very expressive with tremolo, with both speed and dynamic.
1) The absolute best resource is to find a carillonneur that will demonstrate the keyboard and the instrument. As each carillon is unique, this is essential when writing for a particular keyboard. Most carillonneurs would be very excited to hear from composers who are interested in writing for them!
2) There are two main publishers of carillon music in North America:
3) The TowerBells website has an index of all carillons (and other bell instruments) in North America, and many instruments in Europe and the rest of the world. The site can be used to generate a list of instruments by location, size, pitch, year, bell foundry, etc. A particularly useful tool is the locator that displays all the instruments on a map.
4) John Gouwens has a carillon primer available here, with several musical examples.
5) Luc Rombouts published Singing Bronze in 2014, and the book is widely considered among carillonneurs as the most valuable account of carillon history. It is available on Amazon.