What comes to mind when one thinks of a “glockenspiel”? Is it a food? An animal? How does one pronounce it? What sounds like an obscure and unfamiliar object, is simply a more elaborate word for the predecessor of the orchestral bells. The bells are a percussion instrument in the same family as the xylophone and timpani. “Glock” means tubular bells and comes from the German word meaning “bell play” (“Glockenspiel” 406). This is why the glockenspiel sounds similar to an ensemble of bells. Glockenspiels are often heard in many popular Christmas songs and are more frequently used in music than one may think. This instrument’s intriguing origins, peculiar sound, and fascinating musical family not only make the glockenspiel a pivotal instrument from the past, but also a musical influence of the future.
The glockenspiel originates from Germany and was invented in medieval times. It was first developed as a small set of bells of different pitches that were struck by hand (Miclaus, par. 2). At this time, the glockenspiel resembled a small carillon, which included stationary chromatically tuned bells usually found at the top of churches (“Carillon”, par. 1). Utilizing an automatic mechanism with a clockwork device, the early glockenspiel used a set of notes that were played in a specific order. This created the traditional church bell ringing still known today. In the late 16th century, the glockenspiel was updated with a piano-like keyboard to make playing easier. By the close of the 17th century, the use of steel, rectangular bars began to replace the bells. This also made tuning easier. Now the performer could play on a keyboard which would activate mechanical hammers to strike the bars. These early versions of the instrument produced sounds of a slightly lower pitch compared to the modern-day glockenspiel (Miclaus, pars. 3-5). .
Oddly enough, this arrangement of metal bars was originally a replacement for the real “bells” but it branched off as a separate instrument by itself which became known as the “glockenspiel” (Miclaus, par. 6). Similar to the xylophone, the glockenspiel consists of two rows of chromatically tuned bars that resemble a piano keyboard (Miclaus, par. 12). The first and second rows function as the white and black keys on a piano, respectively (Estrella, par.1). However, unlike the wooden xylophone, the glockenspiel is composed of high-carbon steel bars with a range of two and a half octaves which is usually from the notes “G” to “C” (Miclaus, par. 7).
The most important component of the glockenspiel besides the metal bars themselves, are what the instrumentalist uses to play it. Small-headed mallets composed of metal, wood, rubber, plastic or felt are used to strike different notes, tones, or pitches (Estrella, par. 1).
One article suggests that players avoid using brass unless required by the composer or conductor. Although many band directors prefer the brass mallets because they produce...