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What Is the Bell Effect?

Bell tones occur naturally on instruments like a guitar.
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  • Written By: H. Bliss
  • Edited By: Rachel Catherine Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 18 September 2014
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The bell effect is a technique used in musical composition and arrangement which instructs instrumentalists playing non-bell instruments to imitate the sound of bells. They can do this by playing notes in a bell-like pattern, then holding the tone to sustain the chord like a sustained set of bells. This technique is called the bell effect because the result is a sharply struck ringing out, then gradually declining resonant chord like the sound that is made when a bell is struck. The bell-like tones played in the bell effect are called bell tones. Melodic lines played in bell tone style are often repeated patterns that mimic the sound of automated church bells.

When scored on printed notation, the bell tones used to make the bell effect can be indicated in a few different ways. Sometimes, composers show that they want this type of sound using an accent over each note followed by a decrescendo symbol, but sometimes they simply score the notes and write "bells" in italicized text within the staff. Since the bell effect is common in many genres of music, seasoned instrumentalists know to play the indicated passage in bell tone style.

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Imitating the sound of a bell is different on each instrument. On string instruments like the guitar, bell tones occur naturally if the string is simply plucked and rung out in the designated pattern. A wind instrument player imitates the bell sound by using a hard tongue to start a sound with loud intensity, then reducing the air flow to fade out the sound. Mallet instruments like cymbals are simply struck to make a bell sound.

In most compositions, the purpose of the bell effect is generally to imitate the sound of musical bells like church bells ringing out and blending together. This technique is highly common in Christmas music. Sometimes, the bell effect is applied to instruments that are playing a musical line alongside actual bells. Since musical church bells usually came in groups of six to eighteen, with each bell sounding a different note, the notes used in bell tone passages generally mimic those found on actual church bells.

An important part of effectively performing a bell tone is to allow the tone to ring out for the entire duration of the note. The natural tendency of many musicians is to cut the note off early, since supporting a note can be difficult to do while decreasing its intensity, but a true bell effect relies on full extension of the decrescendo sounding out. Many conductors use hand signals to guide the volume and length of the bell decrescendo.

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