What is a Carillon?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A carillon is a musical instrument which is made from a set of at least 23 bells, connected to pedals which can be manipulated with the hands and feet. Carillons can be found in many parts of Europe, especially in old churches and other sites of historical importance, and some universities around the world also maintain carillons. A variety of different types of music can be played on a carillon, with some composers producing pieces which are specifically designed for the carillon. When a carillon is in good condition and it is handled by a skilled carillonneur, it can create quite a pleasing range of sounds.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

People have been making bells of various shapes and sizes for centuries. In addition to being used to create music, bells have also be used to send messages and warnings. By the 12th century CE, craftspeople were starting to tune bells, manipulating their size, weight, shape, and thickness to create uniform and pleasing sounds. By the 15th century, several bellmakers were successfully making tuned bells, although it took another 400 years to perfect the art of tuning bells.

Most carillons are made with bells case in bell bronze, a special metal alloy which is specifically designed for making bells. The bells are cast in molds which determine their rough shape and weight, and then the bells are refined on a lathe. A number of different notes and tones can be created with a single bell, depending on how it is struck; tuning refines these tones so that bells can be played in harmony together.

Playing a carillon is hard work. Smaller bells which produce higher notes are fairly easy to play, with levers which are manipulated by the hands or fists, although it takes prolonged practice to learn to exploit the range of tones a single bell can produce. Larger bells are extremely heavy, and it requires significant force to play them well. The array of levers and pedals can present quite a workout for a carillon player, and a slip of the body can create a very discordant and unpleasant noise. When a carillon functions well, it can be used to produce beautiful harmonies and arrays of notes in a wide range of musical compositions.

Several universities allow students to study carillon, using the school's own bells as a practice and teaching tool. Some musicians also have their own portable carillon sets, which tend to have a more limited range of octaves since deep, heavy bells are not very easy to move around. The greatest enemy of any carillon is pollution and the elements, which can throw bells out of tune.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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