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Title: demo: chimes; David Miller, percussion. Format: DAT.

Contextual Associations

The chimes (also called ‘tubular bells,’ especially in Great Britain) is a metal tube idiophone of European origin. It is today found distributed throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. The chimes is a standard instrument today in the battery of western percussion instruments and is called for in many late-19th century to the present orchestral and concert band works and also in many percussion ensemble works. In compositions it is often used to imitate the sound of cathedral bells, and even when not used with this intention its sound still resembles that source in the mind of a listener. That said, most percussionists and composers point out that the sound of chimes pales in comparison to that of real bells. It is one of several instruments on which band and orchestral percussionists, be they are professionals or amateurs, are expected to be proficient.


The chimes is a set of 18 tuned, vertically-hung, seamless brass tubes plated with nickel-chrome. The tubes, which are 1.5 inches in diameter and range from 63 to 37.4 inches in length, are suspended with nylon line from crossbeams that are part of the instrument’s frame. They are struck at the edge of their top rim, which is reinforced with a .3-inch thick metal cap with a .5-inch opening at its center; the bottom ends of the tubes are not capped and simply left open. The tubes are arranged in a keyboard layout, the ‘white keys’ in one row and the ‘black keys’ in a second row positioned 6 inches higher than the first one. Running across the middle of the frame is the damper box, which consists of three parallel boards each with an identical set of 2-inch, felt-padded holes positioned to match the layout of the tubes. The top and bottom boards are firmly attached to the frame and do not move; the middle board slides a mere .5 inch left-to-right and is attached to a spring-loaded foot pedal. When the pedal is in its resting position, the middle board presses the tubes against the felt-lined holes of all three boards, thus dampening any vibrating tubes. When the foot pedal is depressed, the holes of all three boards come into perfect alignment and allow the tubes to hang and to vibrate freely. The cap at the top end of a tube is struck with a wooden-handled hammer with a rawhide head to set it into vibration. The sturdy open frame from which the bars are suspended is made of steel.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The standing performer faces the chimes on the ‘white-key’ side of the instrument (in the photo that would be on the near side with the performer’s back to the camera). One or two hammer-shaped beaters are used to strike selected tubes, and the resulting sound has a long sustain the duration of which can be ended by releasing the foot-operated damper mechanism. The chimes is a fully chromatic instrument with a range of one-and-one-half octaves, C4 - F5. Parts for it are written in the treble clef at sounding pitch. Though it has some dynamic range, it is generally played at full volume to produce its bell-like sound. It is used primarily as a coloristic instrument, though when imitating the peal of cathedral bells one could argue that it is being played melodically.


The introduction of the chimes (though not necessarily in the modern form of the instrument pictured here) is credited to the Englishman John Hampton in 1886. Prior to this time if bells were needed for a composition, real bells of the required pitches were used or other ad hoc solutions (such as thick metal plates) were improvised.

Bibliographic Citations

Blades, James. 1970. Percussion Instruments and their History. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

________. 1984. “Tubular bells [orchestral chimes]. 2. Europe.” NGDMI v.3: 671.

Brindle, Reginald Smith. 1991. Contemporary Percussion. London: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holland, James. 1978. Percussion. New York: Schirmer Books.

Montagu, Jeremy. 2002. Timpani and Percussion. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.232 idiophone--set of percussion tubes of different pitch are combined to form a single instrument, struck either with a non-sonorous object (hand, stick, striker) or against a non-sonorous object (human body, the ground)

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: tube - open ended

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: sonorous object itself is a general resonating space

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - direct

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - mallet-shaped hammer/s

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: none


71 in. height 24 in. width of tube layout

Primary Materials

cord - synthetic





Entry Author

Roger Vetter