What are Chimes?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 06 October 2019
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Chimes is the name of both clock bells and an orchestral instrument. Chimes can refer to three bells of high pitch used to mark the quarter hours, or to a set of chromatically arranged bells played from a keyboard. The clock bells are sometimes called carillon chimes when they number 23 or more bells.

Carillon bells are usually mounted in towers known as campaniles and are usually an outdoor instrument. However, a traveling carillon, called a “concert carillon,” was created in 2003 and played in a variety of locations in Germany and the Netherlands that summer. In 2006, there were at least 13 traveling carillons worldwide.

Carillon bells are often associated with church communities and used to play hymns. However, there is also a collection of original repertoire composed for them, as well as arrangements of piano music and other works. U.S. composer Samuel Barber wrote a Suite for Carillon in 1934.

The orchestral instrument called chimes or tubular bells is a chromatic arrangement of an octave and half of long metal tubes that are suspended from a frame. Mounted on wheels, chimes can be easily moved into place. Chimes are played with rawhide or brass mallets. Rawhide, sometimes substituted by yarn mallets, results in a soft sound, whereas brass mallets create a tenser and more focused sound.


Intended to sound like church bells, chimes have complex over- and undertones. They range from middle C (C4) to the F an octave and a half above (F5). The duration is controlled with a foot pedal.

Chimes have notable appearances in several famous orchestral pieces. They appear in the finale of French composer Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s piano piece, Pictures at an Exhibition: “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Chimes are also featured in the final scene of German composer Richard Wagner’s opera, Parsifal, and at the end of Austrian composer Gustav Holst’s homage to “Saturn” in The Planets.


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