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What are Bells?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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There are several different pitched and unpitched percussion instruments referred to as bells:

  • agogô bells
  • almglocken (Swiss cowbells)
  • bell lyre
  • bell plate
  • bell tree
  • chimes (tubular bells)
  • cowbells
  • glockenspiel (orchestral bells)

All bells are made of metal.

Agogô bells. Originating in Brazil and based on West African cowbells, agogô or agogo bells are welded together on a u-shaped handle. Arranged in sets of 2, 3, or 4, and tuned to a 2nd or 3rd apart, they are often used in an ostinato in samba.

Almglocken. Almglocken or Swiss cowbells are a set of bells similar to those used to keep track of grazing animals in the Alps, hence their name. They are arranged keyboard fashion and played with mallets.

Bell lyre. The bell lyre is a version of the glockenspiel designed for use in a marching band. Rather than set flat, keyboard fashion, it is carried upright, with the tuned bars arranged in the shape of a lyre. It is supported with a strap that encircles the performer’s waist and usually played with one mallet. It usually has less range than a glockenspiel.

Bell plates. Making a similar sound to tubular bells, but with a lower pitch, bell plates came into use in the late 19th century to imitate church bells. They are large sheets of metal, played with large, flat, disc-shaped mallets.

Bell tree. A series of cup-shaped bells mounted in a stack on a long rod, from highest to lowest pitch, the bell tree is played with a rod or a mallet. It originated from similar instruments in several cultures, and is today found in a version finalized in the 1950s by Carrol Bratman, a sound effects expert.

Chimes. The chimes or tubular bells are a chromatic arrangement of an octave and half of long metal tubes that are played with rawhide or brass mallets. Intended to sound like church bells, they have complex over- and undertones.

Cowbells. The cowbell is an iron bell with no clapper. It is used to play ostinatos, and the Latin American version, derived from the guataca, is characteristically used in Afro-Cuban music.

Glockenspiel. Originally a substitute for real bells, the glockenspiel or orchestral bells is a set of tuned metal bars arranged on a tray or in a frame in keyboard fashion for orchestra or band use. It may be played with a variety of mallets and produces a clear, bright sound.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Musical Expert, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
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Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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