May 16, 2023
Blog by Thomas Lack
Another in our series of Acoustic Grand Ensembles (AGE), this ensemble of 4 sets of tubular bells takes the core sound of the instrument and transforms it into something greater. Tubular bells have a naturally rich tone with a lot of harmonic information; in this regard, they are kind of similar to the pipe organ, depending on the stops. This makes tubular bells a great “statement” instrument (like stating the top of an hour or the end of class), but they can sometimes be difficult to blend with other instruments. In a live ensemble, the percussionist can adjust the dynamics, use a different hammer or beater, and/or dampen the bells to help with this, but I’ve personally found it a bit more difficult to work with in samples. I have to adjust the EQ, which I’m usually too lazy to do, so I may just go with a different instrument…
But, the ensemble actually winds up addressing these issues for me. Sort of like how the glockenspiel ensemble solves the issue of the instrument being too attack-heavy, the tubular bells ensemble manages to solve the overtones issue. The hall basically acts as an acoustic equalizer, since the stronger overtones are reinforced while the weaker ones are drowned out much more than with a single set of bells. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I really love the way it enhances the sound.
With their naturally distinct and stately sound, the tubular bells have been cutting through the noise in all kinds of music for centuries. And while “stately” always comes to my mind first, they can also be both eerie and ethereal, and their use in orchestral music has helped to create some of the most memorable moments in music history.
Like many percussion instruments, the roots of Tubular Bells can be traced back to different places and times, depending on how you look at it. The simple concept of hitting a long, pitched, metallic tube to make sound goes back a long way. Such instruments were used in ancient China as ritual instruments in temples and palaces. They were also found in other parts of Asia, such as India, Japan, and Indonesia. The Chinese bells were often inscribed with symbols or texts that had religious or philosophical meanings. Some of the oldest surviving examples date back to the 5th century BC.
The first tubular bells in Europe were introduced by the French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully in the 17th century. He used them to create dramatic effects in his operas and ballets. They were later adopted by other composers, such as Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven, who used them to add color and contrast to their orchestral works. Tubular bells became especially popular in the 19th century, when they were used to imitate church bells or to create a festive atmosphere, which has continued ever since.
One of the most famous uses of tubular bells is in the 1973 song/album/experience “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield (go figure). This song also became the theme for the movie “The Exorcist.” The haunting, otherworldly sound was the perfect fit for the movie’s theme, and the song has since become a classic, although the shorter version on the soundtrack is probably more popular than the original 50-minute version in two parts. Ironically, the piano, glockenspiel, and guitar are actually featured much more heavily than the titular instrument.
Berlioz employs tubular bells as funeral bells in the fifth movement of “Symphonie Fantastique,” during the Dies Irae. Although, for even greater dramatic effect, sometimes actual, enormous church bells are used instead. Tubular bells can be heard in a wide variety of classical music, from Holst’s “The Planets” to Mahler’s “Symphony no. 2”
In the world of rock music, the use of tubular bells can be found in many classic songs. Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” features the chimes prominently, as does Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” In both cases, the sound of the chimes adds a layer of depth and complexity to the songs that would be impossible to achieve without them.
In more recent years, the use of tubular bells has become more varied and experimental. Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely” features the chimes as a central element of the song, creating an atmosphere of dreamlike beauty that perfectly complements the lyrics. Bjork’s “Army of Me” also features tubular bells, used to create a sense of urgency and tension that drives the song forward.
Tubular bells have also been used in film scores to great effect. In the movie “The Matrix,” the chimes are used in a number of key scenes to create a sense of unease and tension. In “Harry Potter,” the chimes are used to represent the sound of the Hogwarts clock tower, adding a touch of magic to the score.
Outside of music and film, tubular bells have found a place in the world of art. American sculptor Alexander Calder created a series of sculptures called “Mobiles” that featured hanging chimes. These sculptures, which were designed to move with the wind, created a sense of sound and movement that was both mesmerizing and hypnotic.
From the haunting sounds of “Tubular Bells” to the ethereal beauty of “How to Disappear Completely,” the chimes have a unique sound that is instantly recognizable. Whether used to create a sense of mystery and wonder, or to add depth and complexity to a song, the use of tubular bells is sure to continue to inspire musicians and artists for generations to come.