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The Music Of the Carillon Bells

Updated on March 10, 2014

Carillon Bells Are Ringing! Learn More About The Largest Acoustic Instruments In the World!

Chances are you have heard the bells tolling, either from a church belfry, or perhaps a bell tower at a university or courthouse.

Whether to call people to worship, mark the hour, or alert people to an important event; bells have been ringing in towns and cities all over the world for hundreds of years.

Thousands of bell towers dot the landscape, but not all bells we hear can match the complexity of the music performed on the carillon; what makes the carillon so different?

The carillon bells are a true musical instrument!

Unlike more common chimes, the carillon houses a minimum of 23 hand-crafted tuned bronze bells. Carillons allow for the full physical and expressive control of the player, also known as the carillonneur. An amazing variety of music, from traditional to contemporary, can be played on these massive instruments.

House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, MN.
House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, MN.

The Carillonneur Must Climb Many Steps!

My son's grandfather, David W. Johnson, plays this amazing instrument.

He has sounded the bells in Minnesota's capital city of St. Paul as carillonneur at House of Hope Presbyterian Church for close to two decades.

This carillon was one of the first to be built in North America in 1923, and is one of three located in the state of Minnesota. This carillon is a four-octave, fully chromatic instrument with 49 bells. Of these 49 bells, the smallest weigh 11 pounds and the largest weigh in at over 2 tons. The bells can be heard within a one to two mile radius of the church!

In order to reach his instrument, which towers about 90 feet in the air he must climb a spiraling staircase of 113 steps! Having climbed these steps on several occasions, I oftentimes wonder how carillonneurs have the energy to play when they finally reach the top.

A lovely view from the House of Hope Bell Tower
A lovely view from the House of Hope Bell Tower

Above the Treetops

The Machinery of the Carillon Bells

After climbing many steps, you are rewarded with a wonderful view from the tower.

The tower, or campanile, houses the machinery of the carillon.

There is a cabin for the player, and of course the bells themselves. Each bell is hand forged from bronze, and is perfectly tuned at the foundry by the craftsman who cast it. Each bell is truly a work of art. Sadly, due to air pollution, some older bells are eroding and losing their tune at some carillons. These bells must be restored when possible, or replaced.

The Clavier... - The Keyboard the Carillonneur Uses to Play the Bells

The carilloneur plays the bells using a clavier, or keyboard. The clavier resembles a piano, with both hand and foot pedals, arranged in tiers. On the carillon the hand keys are sometimes referred to as "batons", since they resemble small bats. Although the batons are struck with a closed fist, the carillonneur does not pound violently on the clavier. Careful control of the force used is required to obtain the proper sound from the bells.

Each baton and foot pedal is connected to the clapper of an individual bell by a wire and transmission bars. These wires can be adjusted by the carillonneur to account for variations that can occur due to changes in the ambient temperature. All bells are stationary; that is, only the clappers move when the instrument is being played. Some carillons are designed and built to enable several of the lowest bells to swing, thereby producing a peal, but they must stop swinging completely before the instrument can be played in its unique manner. The carillonneur can control the loudness and intensity of each note by varying the force with which they strike the batons.

Once a clapper strikes a bell, there is no stopping the sound. The bell will continue to ring until the sound fades out naturally. This is one of the reasons the music played on the carillon has such fantastic harmonics. It is also why the player must be very careful to ring each bell with precision. If a bell is struck too intensely, or if there are too many bells resonating at the same time, the beautiful sound of the bells soon becomes a garbled sonic soup!

The World War 1 Memorial Carillon

Located in Richmond, Virginia

This carillon, located in Byrd Park stands 240 feet high. The construction was completed by John Taylor Bell Founders of England in 1928 as a memorial for Virginia's World War I veterans.

Carillon concerts here are traditionally held in honor of Virginia's veterans on Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, Flag Day and Labor Day.

Additionally on December 23rd each year, "The Nativity" concert is held in the park, which draws thousands of listeners annually.

For more information on events and concerts at the War Memorial Carillon, please visit

Virginia's Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities

Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon - Located in Springfield, Illinois

Thanks to HAM guy on flickr for sharing this beautiful photo.  CC Licensing.
Thanks to HAM guy on flickr for sharing this beautiful photo. CC Licensing.

The Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon in Springfield, Illinois is home to the annual International Carillon Festival. The festival features carillonneurs from around the globe in a week long concert series. Set amidst the botanical gardens of Washington Park, it's a lovely place to plunk down on the grass and listen to some wonderful music.

The carillon itself is the fifth largest in the world. It is 12 stories tall and houses 67 bells, covering 5 1/2 chromatic octaves. The bells range in weight from 22 pounds to more than seven tons.

For more information on concerts and tours of this carillon, please visit The Rees Memorial Carillon Web Site

The Kibbey Carillon at Washington National Cathedral - Located in Washington, D.C.

laurapadgett on flickr took this great photo, shared with cc licensing.
laurapadgett on flickr took this great photo, shared with cc licensing.

Washington National Cathedral is the second largest cathedral in the United States and the sixth largest in the world. It is unique because it is the only structure in North America which contains a carillon and a full peal of bells. The carillon itself is the third largest in the world, with it's largest bell being greater than eight feet in diameter and weighing in at 12 tons!

Each Saturday at 12:30 p.m. (except for the day before Easter) carillonneur Edward M. Nassor performs a recital. If you are in the D.C. area for a visit I highly recommend enjoying a carillon concert in the Bishop's Garden.

For directions and more information about the Kibbey Carillon, please visit The Washington National Cathedral website

A Brief Video Overview of the Carillon

Another Carillonneur in Action!

Although much traditional music is played on the carillon, this video demonstrates the wide variety of music that can be played on the instrument. I especially like that the climbing of the spiral steps was included in this video.

And Another Carillonneur...Playing the Harry Potter Theme on the Carillon!

Additional Reading on the Carillon...

There are not a great deal of books that have been published specifically on the carillon. I will keep my eyes out, and hopefully find additional reading that I am proud to recommend. Stay tuned!

A Quick Poll

Have you attended a carillon recital before, or would you like to in the future?

See results

More Great Carillon Videos on YouTube

The variety of music carillonneurs perform on their instrument never ceases to amaze me.

I would love to hear what you think! Feel free to post questions, I will do my best to answer them. It helps to have a carillonneur in the family for such things.

Questions or Feedback?

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    • profile image

      sdmary 5 years ago

      Is playing a carillon like playing a piano? Can one cross over to this genre pretty easily? Hmmmm ... wonder if a carillon would fit in my living room? :)

    • AlphaChic profile image

      AlphaChic 5 years ago

      I love your lens. I played English handbells for many years, but never knew much about their "big brothers."

    • APackageAtTheDoor profile image

      APackageAtTheDoor 5 years ago

      I grew up in the shadow of the University of California, Berkeley campus, and the sound of the carillon bells of Sather Tower, better known as the Campanile, was part of my daily life. I loved both the chimes on the quarter hours as well as the concerts. Now we live a few miles away and are no longer in hearing range. I miss it. Lovely lens!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I love carillons, but these days churches have their bells played from electronic devices. I've always wanted to see one, but the few churches I've been to that have one have denied me my request to see it. The virutal carillons on the internet provide a great learning experience. Personally I do feel sad when churches turn off their bells, since sometimes people have complained about their disturbance and annoyance. Other reasons included that the church had been bought out and converted to anouther religeon like Yale Korean. I found out that Yale Koreans don't utilize bells within their worship services or play them around noon. But these days, my memories have returned as I find info on those electronic churchbell devices and sometimes the song samples sound just like the churches that used to play them.

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 6 years ago from So Cal

      Played hand-bells for quite a while but did not realize that Carillon Bells were tuned or that there were so many tied to a keyboard. I can see why this has a purple start. Angel blessed.

    • best-intentions profile image
      Author

      best-intentions 6 years ago

      @TonyPayne: Thanks! You should go to a recital sometime if you can.

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 6 years ago from Southampton, UK

      I think to attend one of these recitals would be really good, a unique opportunity. Very nice lens, blessed by an angel.

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 6 years ago from La Verne, CA

      Very interesting.

    • LouiseKirkpatrick profile image

      LouiseKirkpatrick 7 years ago from Berkshire, United Kingdom

      I'm actually on hoilday in Belgium at the moment and have been enjoying the sound of church bells here! I must have heard lots of Carillon Bells without realising - but thanks to this lens, I now know what I'm listening to! Blessed by a SquidAngel :)

    • best-intentions profile image
      Author

      best-intentions 7 years ago

      Thanks so much for the blessing...I love the bells too, I bet you could have guessed that!

    • profile image

      myraggededge 7 years ago

      What a great subject. I love the peal of bells. Very interesting. Blessed by a Squid angel :-)

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Impressive! Indiana University has one and Bok Towers on Iron Mountain in central Florida has one.

    • smange lm profile image

      smange lm 7 years ago

      Are you a bellringer? I used to play handbells!

    • SoyCandleLover profile image

      BW Duerr 7 years ago from Henrietta, New York

      What a cool lens. I'm especially liked the Harry Potter theme played in Rochester, NY. Music was fun, but I'm also just south of Rochester. :D 5 stars and well done.

    • The-Java-Gal profile image

      The-Java-Gal 7 years ago

      Wow - what an education, and I loved the pics and videos. 5*s

    • best-intentions profile image
      Author

      best-intentions 7 years ago

      @CrossCreations: Thanks for stopping by...I hope there's a carillon in your town to visit, they are amazing!

    • best-intentions profile image
      Author

      best-intentions 7 years ago

      @sukkran trichy: Absolutely!

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 7 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      nice interesting lens with information. thanks for sharing. 5*

    • CrossCreations profile image

      Carolan Ross 7 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Never ever heard of a carillon before...this is really interesting, also very well-presented. Love the photos and you've kept your text boxes short and to the point. 5*s!

    • SandyMertens profile image

      Sandy Mertens 7 years ago from Frozen Tundra

      Wonderful lens!

    • best-intentions profile image
      Author

      best-intentions 7 years ago

      Thanks to everyone for visiting! Have a safe and happy New Year's! If you have a carillon nearby, you may very well hear it ringing tonight if you keep your ears perked!

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

      This is very interesting and very well-presented. I really enjoyed my read and played the Harry Potter theme on the Carillon video while viewing this lens - it really set the mood!

      Happy New Year! I can't wait to see more of your lenses in 2010.

    • profile image

      jgelien 7 years ago

      Wonderful lens. I love listening to the bells and I just learned a lot about them that I never knew before. 5*

    • KarenTBTEN profile image

      KarenTBTEN 7 years ago

      Beautifully written. I had never heardthe term "carillon", but I do associate the ringing of bells with the new year. I like that poster with the reflected bell tower.

    • best-intentions profile image
      Author

      best-intentions 7 years ago

      Thanks so much! Although I'm not a carilonneur, the bells have been dear to me for many years. Thanks for visiting... I hope you have a carillon nearby! Sitting on the grass...or snow...listening to beautiful music from the carillon transports me. One of my joys in life!

      Kate

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 7 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Clemson University which is just 4 miles from us has the Carillon Bells so I thoroughly enjoyed reading this lens and learning more about them. Very nicely done. Blessed by a Squid Angel.

    • Heather426 profile image

      Heather Burns 7 years ago from Wexford, Ireland

      Love this lens! angel blessed.

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image

      Wednesday-Elf 7 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      Wonderful lens. I was fascinated by the fact that you have a carillonneur in the family! What a special talent he has. And I was amazed that I spent my teenage years living in Rochester, NY and never knew about the Hopeman Memorial Carillon at the University of Rochester. Of course I left there in 1959 :D. Thanks for some interesting reading ... and listening. 5*

    • mysticmama lm profile image

      Bambi Watson 7 years ago

      This is a beautiful lens!

      Blessed by an Angel!

    • Pryzym profile image

      Pryzym 7 years ago

      So nice!

      Thank you for sharing!!