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What are the Different Types of Hand Bells?

Josie Myers
Josie Myers

Hand bells are some of the oldest musical instruments still in use. To use a hand bell, a person holds the bell by its handle and quickly moves the bell up and down. The movement causes the clapper, or striking device, to hit the wall of the bell. The vibrations produced by the strike make a ringing sound that in some cases is tuned. The most common types are English hand bells, Dutch hand bells, and chimes.

Tuned hand bells are usually purchased in sets that include a particular number of bells and are intended for a group to ring together. Each person in the group is responsible for one or two bells by tradition, although some smaller groups may require players to be responsible for more than two bells. Players follow music that indicates when they are to play their particular tuned bell or bells. The effect is essentially a choir of bells in harmony.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

English bells are the type most recognized by the general public. In appearance, they resemble a traditional school bell with a bell-shaped wall and a leather or wooden handle, and are most often made of brass. They are tuned chromatically, which means that an octave set of bells contains one bell for all 13 possible notes in the octave.

Dutch hand bells are very similar in appearance to English bells, with the one major difference found in the emphasized overtones. No bell produces an entirely pure tone. Any given bell has a fundamental, the note that is intended to be heard, and overtones that are perceived as less important to the human ear. It is similar to vision, in that one eye can be weaker than the other, but the picture that a person sees can still be clear.

English hand bells allow the secondary tone focus to be on the 12th above the note, a perfect 5th. Dutch bells place that focus on the 10th, or the minor 3rd. This variance produces a slightly different tone quality to the same note played by the two types of bells.

Chimes are a less expensive alternative to traditional hand bells. They are often be seen in schools or youth groups and used for group music classes. In appearance, hand chimes are long metal rectangles held on end that have a mallet shaped striker at the top. When the player pushes the hand chime forward and back, the striker rocks out and back to strike the metal and produce a tuned vibration.

Other types of hand bells are usually found in the hands of a percussionist. Cowbells and sleigh bells are two types of the most common hand bells found in a drummer's kit or in the percussion section of an orchestra. Sometimes these bells are also tuned to a particular pitch.

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Discussion Comments


Hand bells do produce a beautiful tone. They're also prime targets for thieves, if someone breaks into the facility. The brass is very valuable. So most places keep the hand bells under a secure lock and key.

It's a real investment for any group to get a set of hand bells. Even a small, say two-octave set, will run two or three thousand US dollars, if not more. And they just go up in price from there. A group also has to make certain the facility is temperature controlled. Hand bells will go out of tune if they are exposed to extremes of temperature. And believe me -- it is *not* cheap to get hand bells re-tuned!


Choir chimes also require much less maintenance than hand bells. They don't need to be polished or kept in the same plush, velvet-lined cases that hand bells require.

Choir chimes are easier to play, too. Even the deepest notes -- which necessitate a really *big* hand bell, are not that big for a chime. They don't sound as mellifluous as hand bells, of course, but choir chimes are a good way for a church or music group to invest in a group instrument without taking out a second or third mortgage on the church building!

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