Tag: church music

Composing for Carillon

The Carillon

The carillon is one of the most public of instruments. Situated in bell towers in the heart of public spaces, carillonneurs perform for entire communities. Though all who wander near the tower will hear the music, most will never know who it is playing the instrument. As performers hidden from view, carillonneurs strive to convince audiences that we are not machines playing the same tunes each day; we are real humans capable of expression and dynamic variation with lots of diverse repertoire.

Of approximately 600 carillons worldwide, North America is home to 185 such instruments distributed across universities, parks, churches, cities, and even mobile carillons on wheels. Though there are many kinds of bell instruments, a carillon consists of at least 23 tuned bells and is played from a keyboard that allows expression through variation of touch. The instrument is traditionally played solo, with the hands and feet, utilizing a keyboard and pedalboard that resemble a giant piano.

The carillon was born in the Low Countries of Europe about 500 years ago. The instrument emerged from medieval bell towers that originally functioned as signaling mechanisms to the local inhabitants. The bells would communicate not just the time of day, but civil and spiritual events: calls to prayer, the arrival of visitors, warnings such as the outbreak of a fire. In the early 20th century, as technical keyboard innovations began to allow for the expression of touch, the carillon began to develop as a concert instrument. Today carillonneurs perform all kinds of music on the bells: original compositions, classical arrangements, jazz standards, pop tunes, folk songs, film music—anything and everything that our public will enjoy.

Each Instrument is Unique


Carillons come in all shapes and sizes. From 23 bells to 77 bells, these instruments range from massive tower installations that house the largest tuned bells in the world to instruments that could fit in your living room. Bells cast at different foundries throughout history each have their own unique sound; some with richer overtones, some with more resonance, a longer sound, some brighter, some warmer.

Carillons come in all shapes and sizes.

Most carillons in North America are tuned to equal-temperament, but many older instruments in Europe employ the mean-tone tuning system. Though some instruments are concert pitch, keyboards will often transpose up or down to suit the height of the tower. With transposition ranging from up an octave to down a perfect fourth, the same repertoire played on two different instruments can sound vastly different.

Just as a particular concert hall will have certain characteristics, the bell tower itself and the surrounding listening space will play a key role in the sound of each instrument. While some instruments are found in the heart of bustling cities, others are in parks or suburban neighborhoods protected from traffic noise. When towers are more open and allow the bells to be visibly seen from the ground, the strike of each bell will be heard more clearly. Alternatively, sounds will blend more in closed towers where the bells are hidden from view.

Compositions for carillon are sometimes written specifically for one particular carillon, but composers can also write in a way that ensures pieces can be effective on multiple instruments.

Musical Considerations when Composing for Carillon


The unique partials, or overtones, of bells are an important consideration. Unlike traditional Western string or wind instruments, bells have a very prominent minor-third overtone. There is additionally a hum tone that sounds one octave below the strike tone. It can be helpful to compare typical bell partials to the natural harmonic series. The following graphic illustrates this comparison for a C3 bell (one octave below middle C).

Musical notation showing the partials for bells in a carillon

Bass bells are much richer in overtones than high bells. The chord C-E-G played in the bass bells will not sound like a major chord at all, but played in the upper register this chord will sound more “in tune.” Thinning out or spacing out chords can be more effective on carillon (C-G-E), especially when writing major chords. Minor chords and diminished chords, on other hand, will sound more natural in the lower registers of the instrument.

Decay of Sound

As a bell is struck, the strike tone is heard in the foreground, but this pitch decays quickly, leaving the hum tone and overtones to emerge. Once a bell is rung, there is no way to dampen the sound or silence the bell. Each bell will continue to ring as the vibrations naturally dissipate. (Though there is an adjustment mechanism on each key that will allow the carillonneur to hold the clapper against the bell after striking, thus muting the sound, most players will advise against this as it creates a rather ugly sound and is perhaps not good for the instrument.)

A walking bass line on a fast be-bop jazz standard will not come across as intended.

Larger bells will ring longer, up to about 30 seconds, before fully coming to rest. Smaller bells will not ring as long, sometimes only for a few seconds. Rapid harmonic changes in the bass will create a blurred sound; a walking bass line on a fast be-bop jazz standard, for instance, will not come across as intended.

Depending on the bell foundry, the same bell on two different carillons can have a very different decay of sound. For instance, English bells (Taylor, Gillett & Johnston) cast in the early-to-mid 20th century have a rather short decay of sound in the trebles, whereas French bells (Paccard) cast in the later half of the 20th century are exceptionally long sounding. Some repertoire is better suited to short-sounding bells or long-sounding bells.


The carillon has an incredible dynamic range, arguably more so than a piano. Through variation of touch, carillonneurs are able to strike each bell so softly that nobody can hear it, or loud enough to startle somebody walking by. Bigger bass bells have more dynamic range than small high bells. Higher bells, with less bell mass, can only reach a fraction of the volume of the bass bells. Thus, crescendos moving down the keyboard are often more effective than up the keyboard.

Composers and arrangers for the carillon like to “think upside down”; rather than give the singing melody line to the soprano, placing the melody in the bass bells, with the higher bells playing harmonic and rhythmic accompaniments, can be very effective.

The carillon has an incredible dynamic range, arguably more so than a piano.

Playing loud is easy; playing soft is more difficult. Due to the large keyfall (1.6-2.2 inches), playing a note pp will require the carillonneur to take time to prepare the note by moving the key partway down before striking. It can be very challenging or impossible to play fast and soft at the same time. (Exception: When playing repeated notes, the carillonneur can keep notes prepared and play rapid trills, tremolos, or ostinatos very quietly.)


Keeping the bass bells in balance with the treble bells is a consideration for both composers and performers. Loud passages in the bass will drown out figures in the upper register, but a passage in the high register marked ff will not sound loud without accompanying bass notes to give the power. On larger carillons especially, the dynamics will come from the bass.

It might sound preposterous that a good balance could ever be achieved, with bass bells weighing tens of thousands of pounds, and high bells as small as 10 lbs. But towers are actually designed to improve balance—by placing the bass bells lower in the tower, the sound of treble bells will carry farther when high up in the tower. In some towers, louvers are positioned in the openings of the belfry to magnify this effect. Louvers are angled slats that deflect sound down to the ground. These louvers will rein in the sound of the bass bells, placed lower in the tower, by deflecting their sound more sharply towards the ground. At the same time, the louvers will keep the sound of the small high bells from drifting up into the sky.

Still, it is important for composers to consider the balance of bass and treble bells. Even the biggest bass bell can be played pp when the performer is given time to prepare each note.

Audiences are also capable of improving their listening experience. If one is standing too close to the tower, the bass bells will often be heard too loud and the instrument will sound out of balance. The best listening areas are usually found further away from the tower. Every tower is different, so a general rule of thumb: Imagine the tower falls over on its side. Standing just beyond the range of the impact will result in a decent listening place, in addition to protecting you in case the tower does fall over!

An image of a "brozen piano," which is a keyboard attached to a set of bells that are collected in the shape of a grand piano

Of course there’s no worry about standing too close to a falling tower if you’re listening to a “Bronzen Piano,” a mobile carillon in the shape of a grand piano that was developed by Anna Maria Reverté and Koen Van Assche which can easily be transported and played anywhere.



Most compositions are written, or made playable, for four-octave carillon.

If writing for a particular carillon, it will be important to determine the exact range of the instrument, as well as to hear sound samples to determine the musical properties of the bells. Manuals typically span the full length of the keyboard, and pedals typically duplicate the bottom two octaves of the instrument. Here are several common ranges:

Musical notation showing the ranges for various carillons

Most compositions are written, or made playable, for four-octave carillon, C3 to C7, omitting the lowest C#3. Writing for this range will allow the piece to be played on most concert carillons. When writing for four and a half octaves, composers will often include substitutions for notes outside of the four-octave range, to make the piece playable on four-octave instruments.


Traditional technique asks the carillonneur to play each key with a closed fist, one note for each hand. Rapid passages of broken arpeggios that alternate hands (L-R-L-R…) are very idiomatic.

A four-note chord is easily realized with two hands and two feet. As keyboards have evolved and been made lighter over the 20th century, it has become additionally possible to play with open hands and fingers. Two notes, no more than a fourth apart, are easily playable with one hand. Passages can be difficult, though, when two-note chords are played in quick succession with one hand, especially when changes in hand position are required between the natural and chromatic keys. Clusters of three or four notes in one hand are also possible if the keys are all natural, or all chromatic.

It is possible, though unusual, to play two neighboring pedals simultaneously with one foot, provided they are both natural, or both chromatic.

Fast repeated notes are possible in the upper range with hands, but not as much in the lower range or with the pedals, as the clappers are bigger and heavier.


The keys on a carillon are much farther apart than on a piano—14 inches per octave, compared to 6.5 inches per octave. This makes rapid jumps in one hand between registers quite difficult; even jumping an octave quickly requires a lot of concentration.

Rapid jumps in one hand between registers are quite difficult.

Additionally, maintaining a large gap between the left and right hands can be challenging. Rapid independent movement in the left and right hand is best kept within two octaves between the two hands, so that the performer can better visualize both hands on the keyboard.

On larger carillons with 4.5 or more octaves, it can be difficult or impossible to play both the high register with the hands, and the lowest bass notes with the feet, at the same time. Large diagonal stretches are best kept within 3 or 4 octaves.


Carillon music is written on two staves, with the top staff for the manuals and the bottom staff for the pedals. Carillonneurs generally prefer to read the top staff in treble clef and the bottom staff in bass clef, and read 8va or 8vb beyond the third ledger line, rather than changing clef.

Rolled chords are very idiomatic to the carillon and can be noted in one of two ways:

  1. Open-handed roll

A roll with an arrow pointing up will indicate to play all the notes open-handed, sequentially from bottom to top (1-2-3…). These open-handed rolls are usually kept to three or four notes, but five or six notes are possible if the notes are all clustered together, as long as both open hands can prepare all notes simultaneously.

  1. Broken roll

A “lighting bolt” will indicate to alternate both hands with closed fists and play a broken roll. For a four-note chord, this means playing the bottom note first, then the third note, then the second, and then the fourth (1-3-2-4). A three-note chord would be played 2-1-3. Broken rolls are very idiomatic to the carillon and more traditional than the open-handed roll.

Musical notation for rolled chords on the carillon.

Tremolando, or tremolo, is another common carillon technique. Tremolos are often noted in early 20th-century Flemish compositions, to allow melodies in the upper registers to sing out over the bass. Tremolos are still used, though less frequently, in modern compositions, either to bring out melodies or for other effects. Tremolo is possible between two notes with two hands, or more notes with each hand playing a cluster. Carillonneurs can be very expressive with tremolo, with both speed and dynamic.

Carillonneurs can be very expressive with tremolo.

Additional Resources

1) The absolute best resource is to find a carillonneur that will demonstrate the keyboard and the instrument. As each carillon is unique, this is essential when writing for a particular keyboard. Most carillonneurs would be very excited to hear from composers who are interested in writing for them!

2) There are two main publishers of carillon music in North America:

The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America

American Carillon Music Editions

3) The TowerBells website has an index of all carillons (and other bell instruments) in North America, and many instruments in Europe and the rest of the world. The site can be used to generate a list of instruments by location, size, pitch, year, bell foundry, etc. A particularly useful tool is the locator that displays all the instruments on a map.

4) John Gouwens has a carillon primer available here, with several musical examples.

5) Luc Rombouts published Singing Bronze in 2014, and the book is widely considered among carillonneurs as the most valuable account of carillon history. It is available on Amazon.

12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music (Parts 7-9): Write Faster; Hear It, Change It; Churches Do Tons of New Music

Image of a clock with additional hours

Photo by Bin im Garten via Creative commons on Wikimedia

Say yes. A busy drummer I know—a busy drummer/band founder-owner/recording engineer/audio engineer/p.a. engineer/d.j./contractor/recording-studio-booker/instrument-renter and did I mention that he’s busy?—once told me that he just says yes, and figures out how to do it later. That’s how to get work, whether it’s composing work or any other kind. The people who are busy say yes. Figure out how to do it later, but say yes now.

Often, especially when we’re starting out as composers (but not just then), people come to us because they’re desperate. It may be their lack of planning, or their failure to get someone else. Maybe they’re cheap and they’re hoping that we are, too. Or maybe it’s because they’ve said yes and they’re just wondering if we’re part of the figuring-out part.

So we think about the finances, but the truth is, we don’t improve as composers unless we compose. Whether the job comes our way from desperation, friendship, or dumb luck, it probably has to be done right away. To get the work, we need to say yes, and to keep the work, we need to produce. But to produce, from what church music has taught me, we need to write faster, rewrite when necessary, and write for the people who actually want new music. If we do, our music will keep getting performed and performed well.

7. Write Faster

A deadline, like the hangman’s noose, concentrates the mind wonderfully, and churches have been helpfully suspending a perfectly knotted deadline each and every Sunday for a couple thousand years. Liturgical churches offer an ever-changing buffet of themes and sung texts each week, translating to a menu of deadlines for introits, psalms, verses, prayers, anthems, and instrumental set-pieces.

Repeated rehearsals, in an ideal world, are—what’s the word?—ideal. The director probably schedules four weeks of them for anthems. But smaller pieces will be run once at, say, the Thursday night rehearsal and just touched up on Sunday morning before the service. This Thursday/Sunday turnaround (and Sunday/Thursday to compose the next one) is an educational goldmine for the composer. Writing a four- or eight-bar verse, or a chanted unison introit over two or three chords, is efficient, practical, and a priceless apprenticeship. Writing it so that a choir can snag it in one pass, then polish it in one or two more, may go unnoticed by the choir, but will turn the director into a lifelong friend.

We love our ideas, but having ideas is not composition. Composition is slapping ideas onto paper and working them into a piece. The more we do this, the quicker we get past the idea and on to the piece, and the better at composing we become.
This is the genius of the deadline. We hope for a better idea, and the deadline snickers. It scoffs at chin-stroking, guffaws at rumination, and laughs at mulling.

But we get the last laugh. The quicker we turn out the piece—the more we hit Thursday and hear it Sunday—the quicker the ideas come, the quicker we discard them, and the quicker we slap the good ones on paper, which is where the composing happens.

8. Hear It, Change It

So we cherish deadlines, but what we need most of all are hearings. As a musician may overcome stage fright through repeated performance, we loosen up from hearing our music over and over. At first, we’re mortified over the squeak or the missed entrance or the page falling to the floor or the baby crying. But after we’ve been around the block a few times, we relax. (Okay, we begin to relax.)

This is not only good for our souls, it’s good for our composing. The more relaxed we are, the more we can ignore what can’t be helped and the more we can hear what can. The first-time symphonic composer who’s fit to be tied because the double basses don’t, oh, punch enough, soon realizes—or ought to—that double basses never punch that way. Changing an f to an fff or replacing an accent with a marcato hardly makes a difference. The fault is not in our stars, but in our orchestration, or in the piece itself, but we’ll never know it until we hear it (and sometimes, not until the fourth time we hear it). Hearing your Kyrie every Sunday for a couple of months, you see that the sloppy second eleison entrance (the one that will not fix itself) is—surprise—your fault. So you improve.

We also begin to relax about whom we’re writing for. We’re so trained to use our ears, to laser in on the precise combination of instruments to achieve an effect, that we dig in our heels rather than change our field of vision. But there comes a time when we get over it, and we get over ourselves. If Mozart and Verdi can rewrite, maybe we can run it up the flagpole, too. When the younger brother of the violinist shows up at church with his alto saxophone and the director comes to you because she has to rehearse the bells and it’s 45 minutes before the second service, what do you do? You grab a sheet of blank paper because that’s all that’s around, you draw staff lines on it, and you write out an E-flat part; that’s what you do.
And you know what? It’ll be fine.

9. Churches Do Tons of New Music

The plight of orchestras attracts attention. Perhaps we worry about their commitment to new music, but until we can agree if or how much we should worry, at the very least, let’s think about putting our new music in front of people who adore new music. I can’t think of any institution more committed to new music than the church. It devours reams of brand-new music every Sunday and has been doing this, around the world, for centuries.

Regardless of opinions on what kinds of new music churches do, or should do, the fact is, all churches agree that they should be doing it. They all proclaim, together with multiple biblical admonishments, that they should “sing unto the Lord a new song.” And they do.

Composers ought to write for orchestras, and for bands, and for string quartets in bars. We ought to be on the lookout for any venue in which we can utter our soul’s deepest cry of meaning within meaninglessness, of humanity within horror, of something within us and around us and above us. While we’re on that quest, let’s not overlook the one place—the church—that’s been looking for us. It says to us now, and has been saying, the one word we’ve been wanting to hear:
It says yes.

12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music, Parts 4-6: Make Them Sound Good, Follow the Rules, then Break the Rules

Break the Rules! (photo by Scott Kleinberg) via Flickr Creative Commons

Break the Rules! (photo by Scott Kleinberg) via Flickr Creative Commons

“You write the best alto lines” is among the dearest compliments I’ve ever received, made more so because it was offered to me by an office worker who sang alto all her life in a church choir. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I believed her, although one of my goals as a composer has always been to keep the altos happy. Nor do I equate “church music” with “amateur music.” I love writing for professionals. I treasure the artistry, and the comments, from those who’ve experienced the greatest variety of music at all levels. But the fact is, the non-professional will be the usual musician in a church environment. So when someone who doesn’t do music for a living appreciates what I attempt to do, that’s a special thrill. In the 12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music, this leads me to:

4. Make Them Sound Good
Much choral writing is in four parts. The traditional way of teaching composing, going back hundreds of years, encourages writing the top line first, then the bottom, then the middle. It makes sense. Nailing down the melody and anchoring the bass helps to build a strong sound. I usually write (in bits and pieces) this way.

But Top/Bottom/Middle is three parts, and the result is that altos and tenors are often scrambling for leftovers. Just like hornists and violists who roll their eyes at yet one more “um, bop, um, bop” march or the “wait-boop-boop, wait-boop-boop” waltz, altos wish they had a nickel for every C and G they sing in C major. (The “dominant” scale degree is named for the chanting tone in the old church modes, but it’s also dominant in tonal music because it plugs holes in more chords than any other. When a composer can’t think of anything else to do, flipping a dominant into the alto line usually fits the bill.)

Altos, however, just like tenors, sopranos, basses, and all musicians, want to sound good. They want to sound like they matter, like they’re making music. Professionals want to; so do amateurs. I love the German editions of piano music that proclaim: für Kenner und Liebhaber. For professionals and amateurs, yes, but reading it in another language highlights that professionals (who, we hope, also love music) are those who know, and that amateurs (who, we hope, know a thing or two) are those who love.
I don’t want to jilt them.

5. Follow the Rules
Voice-leading rules exist for a variety of reasons, but school didn’t teach me what might be the most important one. Parallel fifths, we say, destroy the individuality of the line. This is true, as it is also for doubled sevenths, which want to resolve in the same direction to the same pitch. Doubled major thirds emphasize sketchy intonation. Leaps following leaps in the same direction sound ungainly. All true. But the main reason to follow the rules—in the majority of cases and for the majority of ensembles—is that when you don’t, the music is harder to sing.

I’ve witnessed this over and over in choir practice. A piece will break down at one spot. A fairly easy anthem comes to grief in one bar; we sing it again; we stare at it. It shouldn’t be this difficult. But don’t you know, exactly there, a cross-relation monkey wrench, a tenor F-natural following on the heels of a soprano F-sharp. Same or different octave, hardly matters.

Men have to sing parallel fifths in oh, how many anthems. It’s tonal, it’s not fast, it’s not chromatic, yet one or the other or both voices are fishing for notes. Leaving aside the (usually) boorish effect, it ought to, you’d think, lock in. They’re fifths, after all. On paper it looks locked in. But it doesn’t lock in, nope. Sure, the guys get it eventually, with a good will and with good direction. But they have to fight for it. Next week, at the next rehearsal, they fight for it again. When they should be working on dynamics, say, or on another piece, they’re fighting parallel fifths. It’s one more item the director doesn’t need on the to-do list. It’s one more strike against the composer.

The rules are short cuts to easier music-making.

6. Break the Rules

I’ve never forgotten what a tenor said after a rehearsal of a Bach chorus. It was challenging, as Bach often is, and chromatic and snaky and kind of fast and rhythmically akimbo and, well, in German. It necessitated repeated work with individual voice parts. There was a lot of sitting around and keeping quiet (just as hard for volunteer grownups, by the way, as for kids) while other parts sang their lines over and over.

The tenor, thus made to listen to the sopranos, altos, and basses all by themselves, had a revelation. He told me afterward, as we reshelved our music, “That Bach, it’s like he makes every voice line a melody.” My knees buckled. Flags unfurled, fireworks burst, popcorn popped, fish were jumping, and the cotton… I wanted to high-five him. I had no idea what to say, but I looked him right in the eye and said, “Oh. Yes!” He had gotten Bach. He works in a bank, he screams at the Phillies on TV, and he gets Bach.
He gets music. He understands what should be—this I believe—the goal of all music: each line, a melody. Every moment in every voice (whether sounded or not), indispensable.

But to get to there, rules must be broken. The music of Bach is riddled with cross-relations, doubled major thirds, hidden parallels, and galumphing sequential leaps. Well, maybe not riddled, but they’re easy for the motivated freshman to find and present with an “Aha!” to the putatively blockheaded theory teacher. The answer isn’t, as the deserved smackdown often is, “He’s Bach; you ain’t,” as if genius comes with a pass to break rules.

The answer is, of course, that there are no rules. Or better: That there is a deeper rule, and Bach knew it. Location, location, location becomes, in music, the line, the line, always the line. As Aslan says in The Chronicles of Narnia, “The Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still.”

For, despite my schoolmarm finger-wagging above, the point isn’t to have everything easy. The point is to have everything sing.
Keep the altos happy, and find the deeper magic.