The tubular bells in modern opera and orchestras are arranged chromatically as symphonic chimes. They were built for the orchestra as an easy-to-carry instrument for daily use, and their original design strived to be as similar to church bells as possible. However, this goal never came to be.

The birthplace of this instrument traces back to Asia. More than 4,000 years ago, the Chinese were already using ensemble bells of varying sizes. More recently, 65 bronze bells of different sizes appeared in a 2,400-year-old trench in the province of Hopeh in China.

The bells came to southern Europe through the Mediterranean. Small designs, tintinnabulum, were mostly used as signaling methods in ancient Rome’s baths, for instance. Around 400 B.C., Bishop Paulinus of Nola reputedly approved the first bells of a larger scale that could be rung. Later on, in the 9th century, hemispherical, “bulb-shaped” bells would be common. The most popular type was the “beehive” in the 11th century and the “sugar-loaf” in the 12th. After many developments, the art of bell-funding eventually achieved maturity in the 13th century, with the invention of the “Gothic” ring.

The largest bells, weighing more than 20 tons, were cast in the 18th and 19th centuries. The “Tsar Bell” with a weight of 198 tons and a height of 6.14 meters is the largest ever cast.

Tubular bells as we know them now first appeared between 1860 and 1870 in Paris. The Englishman John Harrington patented their manufacturing in bronze.

Arthur Sullivan may have been the first composer to score for tubular bells in the orchestra, by 1886. In the early 20th century, they were also incorporated into theater organs as a means to produce effects.

Construction and design of the tubular bells

The tubular bells sit on a high stand of approximately 180 cm. The stand consists of a wheeled platform, a frame, and two suspension rails. In keyboard fashion, the chromatically tuned tubes lay on two rows and two suspension rails hold them. The back row corresponds to the piano’s black keys. It sits about 20 cm higher than the front row so that the musician can comfortably access the tubes.

At the base of the stand, there is a damper pedal connected to the damping system by means of rods. Operating the damper pedal affects all tubes simultaneously. The pedal works in the same way as in the piano: a depressed pedal allows the notes to resonate and a released pedal dampens them. 

Depending on the range, a set of symphonic chimes consists of either 18 tubes (1½ octaves: C4–F5) or 25 tubes (2 octaves: F3–F5). The tube’s frequencies are inversely proportional to their length. The fundamental frequency of a tube that is 70.7 cm long, for instance, is approximately half that of a 50 cm long tube of the same thickness.