The name glockenspiel means “bell play” in German. It refers to the sound of small bells. Indeed, the very first instruments to bear this name consisted of a set of exactly that. They were either played by a group of musicians, a style which is called “carillon playing”, or struck helped by complex mechanisms.

In the 14th century, two kinds of glockenspiel existed: huge designs in church towers and smaller ones for playing at home. Lesser glockenspiels started to boast a keyboard in the 17th century, which made it easier to perform difficult pieces.

The Dutch made the first step towards using the glockenspiel in the contemporary orchestra in the 17th century. Following the pattern of the metallophone from eastern Asia, they replaced the unwieldy bells with a row of bars. Georg Friedrich Handel was the first composer to use this instrument in an orchestra piece for his oratorio Saul (1739). He composed this piece originally on an instrument named the carillon, which has a length of about two and a half octaves. It had metal bars that were played via a chromatic keyboard. The sound was allegedly like that of metal hammers beating on anvils. Handel wrote parts for the instrument in several of his operas.

Design of the glockenspiel

The chromatically tuned bars lie in two rows, similar to piano keys. They sit on a shallow wooden box, which in turn sits on an adjustable metal stand, or simply placed on a table. All the bars are the same width and thickness; it is only the length that varies.

These bars are held in place in one of two ways: 

On one hand, there’s a circular hole in each bar at one end with a pin through it. The other end rests on a felt rail. This type of arrangement happens only on the table glockenspiel. 

Alternatively, the steel bars host holes bored in the sides at their nodal ends, about 22 percent of the bar length from the end, as on the xylophone. A string passes into these holes to hang the bars. Pegs separate each bar from its neighbor, stabilizing it and allowing it to freely vibrate.

Execution

Performers carry two or four mallets, their hand palm facing downward. There’s a striking spot in the center of the bar. These bars have a high density that helps the tone projection. Relatively heavy mallets prove necessary to allow them to vibrate.

Percussionists have a choice of mallets of varying hardness. Hard (metal) mallets emphasize the higher partials, making the timbre brighter and shriller. Softer (wooden) mallets damp the higher partials; the timbre becomes softer and rounder and contains more fundamental. Very heavy mallets produce a distinctly audible percussive attack in loud passages, especially on table glockenspiels.

The hand can damp individual notes following the attack, enabling the musician to determine the length of sustain. Damping with the mallet on the glockenspiel would produce an extraneous noise at the moment of impact. Conversely, damping with the mallet is standard practice on the vibraphone.