History of the Glockenspiel

Glockenspiel is a percussion instrument which sounds like a lot of smaller bells with an enchanting melody, like listening to a small bells ensemble. The name itself comes from German and it means “bell play”, referring to the sound made of small bells.

The musical instrument’s history begins in Germany where the fixed bells playing in churches and town hall belfries are still a great tourist attraction.

Back in the medieval ages when it was invented, the glockenspiel was a small set of actual bells (different ranges) which were struck by hand. It resembled a smaller carillon. The smaller glockenspiels worked on the principle of notes sequence using an automatic mechanism performed by a clockwork device. The notes were played in their specific order by this mechanism which was also used to play the fixed bells in churches or campaniles.

Later on, in the 16th century it was given a piano-like keyboard so playing the “bells” was done easier.

Rectangular steel bars started to replace the bells by the end of the 17th century. These metal bars were also easier to tune, and back then they were played using a mechanical set of hammers which was activated by the performer via a piano-like keyboard. The early versions of the instrument used bars or bells which were a little bigger and lower pitched than the modern glockenspiel.

In the beginning, this arrangement of metal bars was just a substitute for real bells but it soon developed into a musical instrument on its own.

The bars of the modern glockenspiel are made of high carbon steel, and they are struck with small-headed mallets. The pitch is very high, so the songs are written two octaves below the actual sounding pitch.

The glockenspiel is the “bird” of the orchestra. You can find it in orchestras nowadays and its central role is to enhance the sound of some other instruments by doubling their melody line, adding brightness and vivacity to it.

Therefore, we can hear our “bird” sing most often in combination with the flute, piccolo, celesta and harp, and less frequently with the violin, oboe, and clarinet.

The modern instruments related to glockenspiel are the tubophone and the vibraphone.

How to Play the Glockenspiel?

This instrument is played like the xylophone, using the mallets. One can only play the main melody line – and not the harmony – even if the music player could hold two mallets in each hand. On the other hand using vibraphone one can play both: the melody and the harmony.

Glockenspiel solos are rather exceptional; nevertheless, their charming sound makes them very special and capable of drawing the audience’s attention.

How Does the Glockenspiel Look Like Today?

Just like the piano keys, the chromatically tuned bars lie in two rows placed in a wooden box, which can be mounted on an adaptable metal stand-this or the bars can simply be placed on a table. The same width and thickness is common to all the bars and only their length varies. The bars are held together in one of nest two modalities:

a. A round hole in one end of each bar with a pin through it. The other end does not have a hole trough but rests on a felt rail. This system is used just for the table glockenspiel.

b. The bars have holes in both sides. A string passes through all the holes and the bars are suspended this way and look like a ladder. Each bar is isolated from the next one by pegs, which keep it in place and allow it to vibrate without restraint. This arrangement style is found only on glockenspiel with a damper pedal.

The glockenspiel case acts as a sound box; therefore, it has no supplementary resonators. This instrument is used in orchestras but also loved by children and composers like George Frideric Handel (1738) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have included the glockenspiel in their operas.