bell, in music, a percussion instrument consisting of a hollow metal vessel, often cup-shaped with an outward-flaring rim, damped at one end and set into vibration by a blow from a clapper within or from a hammer without.
A portable set of bells, usually not more than 15 in number, tuned to the intervals of the major scale, is known as a chime and were first used by the ancient Chinese. A carillon is a larger stationary set with chromatic intervals and as many as 70 bells, which are played from a keyboard. Harmonies and effects of shading, not possible on a chime, are part of the art of carillon playing—an art for which there is a school in Belgium. The bells of a carillon must be tuned with more accuracy than those of a chime; the best modern craftsmen can tune the fundamental (known as the hum note), the octave (known as the strike note), the twelfth, and the fifteenth with perfect accuracy.
An interesting and unexplained illusion manifest in bells is their apparent pitch (strike note): the pitch the observer hears can often be scientifically proved to be different from any of the pitches produced by the bell. Bells have been known in all metal-using cultures and civilizations and have been used in connection with all major religions except Islam. Many legends and traditions are associated with bells, which have been used for signaling, in dancing, and as protective charms. Apparently originating in Asia, in early times bells were employed for religious purposes and were used in Christianity by the 6th cent. Early bells were blessed with holy water, in the belief that dedication to Christian service gave power to ward off lightning.
Sets of bells tuned to a musical scale and called cymbala were used in the Middle Ages for musical instruction and to accompany chant in churches. In the 13th cent., tower bells were attached to clocklike mechanisms to strike the hours. The carillon developed out of the Belgian voorslag of the 15th cent., a set of bells attached to a large tower clock that played a tune before striking the hour. In the Low Countries, where the making and playing of carillons centered, the principal cities vied over the size and complexity of their instruments. A peak in European carillon making was reached in the work of the brothers Frans (1609–67) and Pieter (1619–80) Hemony of Amsterdam. The carillonneur's art flourished until the 18th cent., declining during the French Revolution, when many carillons were melted to make armaments.
Toward the end of the 19th cent., English bellmakers rediscovered the secrets of tuning that had been used by the 17th-century Dutch and Flemish craftsmen. This, with improvements in methods of striking, in placement of the bells, and in action of the keyboard, has made 20th-century carillons the finest in existence. Active in a renaissance of carillon music was Jef Denijn (1862–1941), carillonneur of Mechlin. Since World War I many carillons have been installed in the United States; outstanding is that of the Riverside Church, New York (1930), whose 20.5-ton bourdon bell is the largest ever cast in England. The largest bell in the world was the Great Bell of Moscow; cast in 1733–35, it was broken in a fire in 1737.
See P. D. Peery, Chimes and Electric Carillons (1948); W. G. Wilson, Change Ringing (1965); S. N. Coleman, Bells (1928, repr. 1971); H. R. Jones, About Bells and Bell Ringing (1986); R. Johnston et al., An Atlas of Bells (1990).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.