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Carillonneur playing the carillon bells

Playing the carillon

A musician who plays the carillon is known as a carillonneur or carillonist. They are most often specially trained, as the carillon is an instrument entirely unlike any other. To set the carillon resonating with music, a carillonneur will climb the bell tower steps or ladders (only a very few bell towers offer elevators or lifts all the way to the top) and seat themselves inside a purpose-built cabin beneath or within the arrangement of bells. This cabin serves a variety of purposes, but one of the most helpful is the insulation it provides from the wind and elements that cut through the tower. It further protects the carillonneur’s hearing from the cacophony of ringing.

The cabin houses a traditional keyboard console, called a clavier, that looks akin to a tracker organ. A series of baton-like keys are arranged in the same pattern as a piano, with each corresponding to a unique bell. When a baton is pressed with a loosely open fist, a series of levers and wires transmit the motion to the corresponding bell’s clapper or hammer, and the strike causes it to ring. Much like with a piano, the forcefulness of the downward motion on the baton directly corresponds to the intensity of the ring. This allows for greater control, musicianship, and acoustical dynamics. A carillonneur uses both hands and both feet to play, as many of the larger bells are sounded by foot pedals.​

Carillon bells in bell tower

Carillon music

Most of a carillonneur’s repertoire is written specifically for carillon to accommodate for the peculiarities of the instrument, like the inability to dampen a bell’s ring when sounded. Piano or organ music, therefore, must be specially arranged or adapted. Carillon music is typically written on two staves. The hands play treble clef, the feet play bass. The lowest note on the clavier is the bourdon bell. Also unlike other instruments, the carillon is typically played alone. The bells would simply overpower most reed or string instruments.

The Carillon Wall of 36 stationary bells at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California. Dating from the late 1920s, the bells were cast by Belgian bellmakers Felix Van Aerschodt and Marcel Michiels. The bells are programmed to ring hymns throughout the day and before worship services.

While many grand carillons across the country have at least one carillonneur to play the instrument, some towers choose to install electric bell-ringing equipment. Automatic instrumentation allows the carillon to play more frequently and to play a given repertoire at set times, like on the hour or quarter-hour. This type of ringing is in wide use across college campuses.