Carillons & Chimes

A carillon is a musical instrument of bells. Typically housed in a purpose-built bell tower or belfry, a carillon consists of at least 23 harmonically-tuned bells. The cup-shaped bells are hung fixed in a frame (what a campanologist would call “dead” rather than “swinging”). A carillonneur, or someone who plays the carillon, then operates a mechanism not unlike an organ, which signals an intricate system of internal clappers or external hammers to sound the bells.  

Much like a pianist, a carillonneur can create chords, harmonies, and melodies on their instrument – sending elegant tunes wafting across the rooftops. The more bells comprising the carillon and the more talented the carillonneur, the more dynamic expressions and range of music that can be produced. Some carillons are also equipped with additional mechanisms that allow them to be played automatically without a carillonneur present.

Moser Tower in Naperville, Illinois, was built in 1999 to commemorate the turn of the 21st century and houses the Millennium Carillon.

In German, a carillon is called a Glockenspiel, but this shouldn’t be confused by the tinny percussion keyboard of the same name. Together with organs, carillons are some of the heaviest instruments in the world and can weigh tens of thousands of pounds. Thankfully for students of the carillon, the bells never have to move (unless, of course, a foundry is working to restore them).

Chimes

Chimes are like carillons, but these instruments are composed of fewer bells: only 8 to 22 tower bells form a chime. With a smaller range of notes, chimes play simpler tunes and melodies. As with a full carillon, chimes may be played manually or automatically. They are most often sounded to announce the hour. In fact, the word ‘clock’ is derived from the Latin word cloca, which means bell. 

Chimes became a popular way of indicating the hour because of the long distance over which bells can be heard. Hearing the chimes was a great convenience of village life at a time when it was too expensive to own private clocks. This tradition was preserved in the construction of grandfather clocks, which toll a distinctive sequence of bells at the quarter-hours.

Playing the carillon

A musician who plays the carillon is known as a carillonneur or carillonist. They are most often specially trained, as the carillon is an instrument entirely unlike any other. To set the carillon resonating with music, a carillonneur will climb the bell tower steps or ladders (only a very few bell towers offer elevators or lifts all the way to the top) and seat themselves inside a purpose-built cabin beneath or within the arrangement of bells. This cabin serves a variety of purposes, but one of the most helpful is the insulation it provides from the wind and elements that cut through the tower. It further protects the carillonneur’s hearing from the cacophony of ringing.

The cabin houses a traditional keyboard console, called a clavier, that looks akin to a tracker organ. A series of baton-like keys are arranged in the same pattern as a piano, with each corresponding to a unique bell. When a baton is pressed with a loosely open fist, a series of levers and wires transmit the motion to the corresponding bell’s clapper or hammer, and the strike causes it to ring. Much like with a piano, the forcefulness of the downward motion on the baton directly corresponds to the intensity of the ring. This allows for greater control, musicianship, and acoustical dynamics. A carillonneur uses both hands and both feet to play, as many of the larger bells are sounded by foot pedals.​

Carillon music

Most of a carillonneur’s repertoire is written specifically for carillon to accommodate for the peculiarities of the instrument, like the inability to dampen a bell’s ring when sounded. Piano or organ music, therefore, must be specially arranged or adapted. Carillon music is typically written on two staves. The hands play treble clef, the feet play bass. The lowest note on the clavier is the bourdon bell. Also unlike other instruments, the carillon is typically played alone. The bells would simply overpower most reed or string instruments.

The Carillon Wall of 36 stationary bells at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California. Dating from the late 1920s, the bells were cast by Belgian bellmakers Felix Van Aerschodt and Marcel Michiels. The bells are programmed to ring hymns throughout the day and before worship services.

While many grand carillons across the country have at least one carillonneur to play the instrument, some towers choose to install electric bell-ringing equipment. Automatic instrumentation allows the carillon to play more frequently and to play a given repertoire at set times, like on the hour or quarter-hour. This type of ringing is in wide use across college campuses.