Since each separate note is produced by an individual bell, a carillon's musical range is determined by the number of bells it has. Different names are assigned to instruments based on the number of bells they comprise:
- Carillons with between 23 and 27 bells are referred to as two-octave carillons. Players of these instruments often use music arranged specifically for their limited range of notes.
- A concert carillon has a range of at least four octaves (47 bells). This is sometimes referred to as the "standard-sized" carillon.
The Riverside Carillon in New York City has (or did have—there may be other instruments with larger bourdons) the largest tuned bell in the world, which sounds the C two octaves below middle C on the piano.
Travelling or mobile carillons are not placed in a tower, but can be transported. Some of them can even be played indoor—in a concert hall or church—like the mobile carillon of Frank Steijns.
The World Carillon Federation defines a carillon as "A musical instrument composed of tuned bronze bells which are played from a baton keyboard. Only those carillons having at least 23 bells be taken into consideration" The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America (GCNA) defines a carillon as "a musical instrument consisting of at least two octaves of carillon bells arranged in chromatic series and played from a keyboard permitting control of expression through variation of touch. A carillon bell is a cast bronze cup-shaped bell whose partial tones are in such harmonious relationship to each other as to permit many such bells to be sounded together in varied chords with harmonious and concordant effect."
The GCNA defines a "traditional carillon" as one played from a carillon mechanical (not electrified) baton board; a "non-traditional carillon" as a musical instrument with bells, but played from an electronic keyboard. Anything else is not a carillon according to the GCNA. The GCNA as of 2000 has disqualified all instruments in which more than 12 bells are played electrically (up to twelve bells are allowed so that automatic chiming of tunes may take place). Chiming means that one bell at a time is usually played.
The carillonneur or carillonist is the title of the musician who plays the carillon. The carillonneur/carillonist usually sits in a cabin beneath the bells and presses down, with a loosely closed fist, on a series of baton-like keys arranged in the same pattern as a piano keyboard. The batons are almost never played with the fingers as one does a piano, though this is sometimes used as a special carillon playing technique. The keys activate levers and wires that connect directly to the bells' clappers; thus, as with a piano, the carillonneur can vary the intensity of the note according to the force applied to the key. In addition to the manual keys, the heavier bells are also played with a pedal keyboard. These notes can either be played with the hands or the feet.
To a musician's ear, a carillon can sound "out of tune." Poorly tuned bells often give this impression and also can be out of tune with themselves. This is due to the unusual harmonic characteristics of foundry bells, which have strong overtones above and below the fundamental frequency.Template:See http://www.hibberts.co.uk/tuning.htm Foundry bells are tuned to have the following set of partials (overtones):
- Octave above prime
- Minor third
- Prime and strike tone resultant
- Hum tone (an octave below prime)
There is a major 10th, 12th, and 15th which are not typically individually tuned, but are usually present anyway. They all combine to create a "resultant" pitch, which is in unison with prime on a well-tuned bell. Properly tuned bells emphasize the fundamental frequency of the bell.
There is no standard pitch range for the carillon. In general, a concert carillon will have a minimum of forty-eight bells. The range of any given instrument usually depends on funds available for the fabrication and installation of the instrument: more money allows more bells to be cast, especially the larger, more costly ones. Older carillons can be transposing instruments, generally transposing upward. Most modern instruments sound at concert pitch. A carillon clavier has both a manual and a pedal keyboard.
Carillon music is typically written on two staves. Notes written in the bass clef are generally played by the feet. Notes written in the treble clef are played with the hands. Pedals range from the lowest note (the bourdon) and may continue up to two and half octaves. In the North American Standard keyboard, all notes can be played on the manual.
Because of the acoustic peculiarities of a carillon bell (the prominence of the minor third, and the lack of damping of sound), music written for other instruments needs to be arranged specifically for the carillon.
The combination of carillon and other instruments, while possible, is generally not a happy marriage. The carillon is generally far too loud to perform with most other concert instruments. The great exceptions to this are some late twentieth- and early twenty-first century compositions involving electronic media and carillon. In these compositions, sound amplification is able to match the extreme dynamic range of the carillon and, in the case of sensitive composers, even the most delicate effects are possible. Brass music is often heard together with a (traveling) carillon.
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