bell tree

Also:       Chinese bell tree      

Contextual Associations

The bell tree is a percussion idiophone of European or American origin used as an auxiliary percussion instrument. It is also marketed under the name ‘Chinese bell tree.’ Composers occasionally ask for it in percussion ensemble works and even in orchestral and band compositions, but it is most widely utilized in music for film/TV and commercial soundtracks and in some genres of popular music. No special training is required to perform this instrument; professional drum set players will often include it amongst their auxiliary instruments.


Twenty-seven bowl-shaped brass bells of graduated size (with diameters from 3.5 to 1.5 inches) are nested vertically, face down, on a rod with spacers that keep them slightly separated from one another, the smallest bell on the bottom, the largest on top. The rod runs through a hole drilled in each bell at its apex, which is the acoustically least active part of the bell. A tall wooden frame holds the rod and its attached bells firmly in place.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A player sounds the bell tree by sliding a metal rod or hard-tipped xylophone beater down the stack of bells. This causes the bells to sound in rapid succession and produces a shimmering sound that continues, while gradually decreasing in intensity, for a few seconds. The larger bells each produce a definite pitch, but the pitches of the smaller bells become less-and-less distinct. The series of bells is not tuned to any scale but instead features many microtonal intervals between consecutive bells. This gives rise to a glissando effect when the column of bells is brushed-over from top to bottom. And that is the basic sound of the instrument--a shimmering metallic glissando decaying in intensity over a few seconds.


Our sources do not credit any individual or company with the invention of this instrument. One hears it most frequently in film music and commercials, so perhaps studios in which such soundtracks are recorded is where this instrument came into being. An increasing number of instrument makers have added it to their catalogs since the 1990s, and these companies appear to regularly increase the number of models (as differentiated by the number of bells and the design of the frame that holds them) to satisfy the demands of their clientele.

Bibliographic Citations

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

________. 2005. Practical Percussion. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press.


Instrument Information


Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.242.221 idiophone--set of suspended bells struck from the outside

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: brushing

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: bell-shaped vessel - with opening

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded collectively

Resonator design: sonorous object itself is a general resonating space

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - direct

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - stick with hard ball end

Energy input motion by performer: brushing

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: none


24 in. height (stand) 1.5 - 3.5 in. diameter (smallest to largest bell)

Primary Materials



Carroll Sound

Entry Author

Roger Vetter