Title: Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (Ballet Suite)—Danse de la fee dragee; New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, conductor. Label: Sony Classic. Format: CD. Catalogue#: SMK 63162. Track: 3.

Contextual Associations

The celesta is a metallophone idiophone of European origin (invented in France) that is today found distributed throughout the world wherever the Western orchestra has taken root. It is primarily an orchestral instrument but has also been used in mixed percussion ensemble works. It is called for in several symphonic, ballet and opera scores composed from the late 19th century up to the present. Though it is a percussion idiophone and often situated in an orchestra’s percussion section, it is usually performed by an orchestra’s keyboard specialist rather than a percussionist.


The celesta has as its primary sounding agents 49 tuned metal bars made of steel that are housed within the wood case of the instrument. These bars are graduated in length (from 8 inches to 2 inches) but are of similar width (1 inch, except the lowest five keys that are 1.25 inches wide) and thickness (.13 inches). They are arranged in two rows of 24 (the upper one) and 25 (the lower one), each row with a multi-sectional box resonating chamber beneath it. Each bar rests upon two small blocks of wood that are glued to the top of the resonating chamber. These blocks line up with holes drilled at about a quarter of the way in from the ends of each bar, and screws passing through these holes secure the bar to its blocks. The bars are struck with felt-covered wooden hammers that are activated by depressing keys on the instrument’s piano-like keyboard (visible in the gallery photo). The detail photo shows the opposite side of the instrument with its back panel removed, revealing at least some of the mechanics of its action. The actual sounding bars and the resonators are, unfortunately, not visible, but we can see that these bar/resonator units are organized into two ranks. The backside of the keyboard keys are visible in a single row across the top, each one connected to a vertical rod. When a key on the keyboard is depressed its back end is raised, which in turn raises the attached rod and, with the aid of a pivot mechanism, thrusts the hammer against a key while simultaneously lifting the key’s felt damper. As long as the keyboard key is depressed, its bar will ring until it naturally fades to silence, but as soon as the keyboard key is released the vibrating bar’s damper silences it. A general damper foot pedal located beneath the keyboard (see gallery photo) allows already vibrating bars to continue sounding even after their keyboard keys have been released (it does so for the lowest three octaves of the instrument’s range, but not for its top-most octave).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer sits on a stool facing the keyboard of the celesta like a pianist at a piano. By pressing down a key on the keyboard a mechanical action is set into motion that propels a hammer against the bar for the selected note. More than one note may be sounded simultaneously. The foot pedal controls a damper mechanism, allowing the performer to sustain or to time the muting of the ringing key/s. The instrument has a range of four octaves, C4 - C8, and is fully chromatic. Written, like piano notation, on the grand staff (both treble and bass clefs), the celesta sounds an octave higher than written. It has only one dynamic level, and that is relatively soft. In order to be heard, it should be written for in quiet passages with little other competition. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the celesta.


Invented in 1886 by the Frenchman Auguste Mustel (the instrument pictured here is a product of his shop), the celesta did have one precursor, the typophone or dulcitone, which had tuning fork sounding agents rather than bar-keys and was also invented by Mustel or his father.

Bibliographic Citations

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

________. 1984. “Celesta.” NGDMI v.1: 320.

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.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments

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


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Nation: France

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.222-8 idiophone--set of percussion plaques of different pitch are combined to form a single instrument, struck with a non-sonorous object (hand, stick, striker); with keyboard

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: tapping - finger

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: block - oblong bar

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: separate resonating space/s attuned to pitch/es of sonorous object/s - built into instrument

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - direct with intermediate mechanism

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - padded keyboard hammer/s

Energy input motion by performer: tapping - finger

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: none


35 in. width of case

Primary Materials




Entry Author

Roger Vetter