December is upon us!

Walking down the street, buildings are covered in twinkly lights, the wandering crowds are filled with cheer, and the air is ringing with that sound we all know – the holiday bells.

Bells are a classically religious instrument in Christianity, Shinto, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Bells have always had strong association with the divine and other-worldliness. Catholocism holds the bell as a symbol of paradise and certain practices in China use bells to communicate with the dead. So what makes a bell tick? Or ring, or hum, or sing, as the case may be…

The basics of a bell as an instrument are pretty simple: a bell is, in its entire self, the resonating body of the instrument. Remember from , that any physical object has a resonance frequency, a rate of vibration that that object will naturally vibrate at. With bells, all we do is put energy in (different ways to do that), and let the bell vibrate naturally, creating the sound we hear and love.

The different ways of putting energy into a bell constitute the different categories of bells we’ll look at. The first way is to simply strike the bell – these are called, not surprisingly, struck bells . The second way is to pluck part of the instrument (which obviously requires that the bell is designed with a ‘pluckable’ part!) – these are called plucked bells . The third way is to rub part of the bell, imparting energy through friction – these are called friction bells .

Struck Bells

Tower Bell

The tower bell is a representative of the first type of struck bell, called percussive bells. With a percussive bell, the bell is struck by an external object – like a stick, for instance. Inside the tower bell is a mallet or pendulum attached which strikes the internal walls of the bell when the bell is swung. The percussive group of instruments including the symphonic chimes, marimba, vibraphone, hand bells, and church bells. Some percussive bells create a less melodic and more cacophonous sound, such as gongs and cymbals.

The second type of struck bell is the concussive bell. In concussive bells, multiple bells strike one another, so that the thing doing the hitting is always another bell within or on the same instrument. A popular representative of the concussive bells are wind chimes. As opposed to the symphonic chimes which are struck by a mallet, much like the bells described above – the wind chimes are activate by each other, knocking against one another in the wind. The wind chimes, rain stick and spoons are all members of the concussive struck bells.

Wind Chimes

Plucked Bells


The plucked bells are usually little flints of metal attached to a piece of wood. Africa’s version of this is the m’bira, Europe has the jaw harp, China has the kouxian, the Caribbean the malimbula, and Uruguay the oopoochawa.

Here, enjoy a video of a jaw-harpist in Denmark.

The concussive m’bira is a superstar instrument throughout Africa and goes by many names. It usually tuned in by intervallic relationship to itself and not to any absolute pitch, though there are some families and instrument makers who tune their m’biras in complementing modes so that they can play as an ensemble.

Friction Bells

Friction bells make used of what is called the overtone series. Many other bells can be used as a friction bell (like making the rim of a wine glass hum) though there are some instruments that are made for it, like singing bowls.

Singing bowls are fashioned and used in Buddhist monasteries. The padded mallet is either struck or rubbed along the rim of the bowl, creating an ethereal hum. Singing bowls represent one of the oldest living traditional crafts in existence.

The vibraphone, which we have already discussed as a struck bell is sometimes used as a friction bell. By taking a bass bow (remember the bow from our discussion on strings ) and using it on the edge of a vibraphone – you now have an entirely new sound on the same instrument.

Bells have a richer and more developed tradition in the Asian countries than anywhere else. One such example of this is the Gamelan orchestras of Indonedian islands Bali and Java. Though there are strings, drums and pipes that are often used in certain styles of Gamelan, the core of the ensemble is almost entirely bells.

Whether weighing several tons and being placed in a high tower for all to hear, or strapped to the ankle of dancer, bells have a distinct place in our lives. We wake up to bells, we pray to bells, we meditate to bells, we tell the time with bells. Appreciating the rich history of bells, and their intimate connections with our spiritual expressions throughout history, just might make the ‘sleigh-bell’, ‘charity collections Santa man’, and ‘jingle bell’ season that much more rich!

Can you think of some instruments that don’t quite fit into all the categories discussed in this Music Monday’s series ‘Pipes, Drums, Strings and Bells’? Or some instruments that might fit into more than one? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments!

And an extra challenge for you – which of our musical categories, , , strings , or bells, would you put the following instrument?

Post your answers in the comments – first correct answer gets a special holiday gift from Waistcoat & Watch!