About Carillons

A carillon is a musical instrument composed of at least 23 carillon bells, arranged in chromatic sequence, so tuned as to produce concordant harmony when many bells are sounded together. It is played from a keyboard that allows expression through variation of touch. The keys are struck with the half-closed hand. In addition, the larger bells are connected to foot pedals.

Although bells were first made during the Bronze Age, it was not until the 15th century that Flemish bell founders began to discover the process of accurately tuning bells - a process that occurs solely at the bell foundry. (Bells, unlike other musical instruments, do not go out of tune over time.) The 17th century was a golden age for the production of excellent carillons in the Low Countries of Europe. The art of tuning carillon bells almost died out by the 19th century, although bells of all kinds continued to be cast for many purposes.

It was only at the turn of the 20th century that carillon bell tuning began to be revived, eventually surpassing the quality and tuning of 17th-century bells and leading to the production of the many fine modern instruments now in existence. Thus there are numerous historical instruments that have the necessary number of bells and type of playing mechanism to be called carillons but are not always entirely harmonious to the ear. Although the Guild does not classify carillons according to the quality of their tuning, individual members do discuss not only tuning but also many other aspects of the quality of various carillons and promote various kinds of refinements.

Bells in a framework Click to view a larger image

Carillons are usually installed in a tower, either in a partially enclosed bell chamber - which helps soften and blend the tones - or hanging from an exposed bell frame. The keyboard is either in a room directly below the bells or placed in a cabin located in the bell chamber among the bells. A few instruments have been mounted on trucks or trailers so that they can be moved from place to place for open-air performances.

The world's greatest concentration of carillons is still in Belgium, the Netherlands, northern France and northwest Germany. The art of the carillon has spread worldwide, however, with instruments on every continent except Antarctica. There are more than 180 carillons in North America and more than 450 elsewhere in the world.

An instrument that is like a carillon in terms of the number of bells, but has only automatic action, is often loosely called a carillon, but is not recognized as a traditional carillon by the GCNA.

An instrument that is like a carillon but has less than 23 bells is called a chime. Several different types of playing mechanism are used in chimes, and there have been many instances in which good-quality chimes were eventually enlarged to become carillons. Although chimes are found in as many parts of the world as carillons are, there was a uniquely American development of them in the 19th century. About 700 are known in North America, and more than 500 in the rest of the world.