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Chimesmaster performs on the 21-bell chime at Cornell University

How to handle and play a chime

A chimer, or chime player, is the individual in command of the instrument. In front of the chimer stands a baton keyboard arrayed into two rows – a lower for naturals and an upper for sharps and flats. Above the chimer (often in a separate chamber) hang the suspended bells. Chime bells are hung fixed; that is, they do not swing.

When a baton on the keyboard is pressed, a series of levers and wires transmit the motion to the corresponding bell’s clapper or hammer, and the strike causes it to ring. Batons may be struck with a firm fist or pinched between the thumb and index finger. A flat, open hand may depress multiple batons at once, creating rich chords and harmonies.

Electronic ringing is in wide use, although the expressiveness and dynamism of the instrument is lost without a skilled chimer at the helm. 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. Well-adjusted and maintained chimes, played with proper technique by a chimer, are capable of exquisite musical expression and a full dynamic range from pianissimo to fortissimo.

Section image: A chimesmaster performs on the 21-bell Cornell Chimes from McGraw Tower at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, on September 18, 2018.

Bell Tower at The Mother Church in Boston, Massachusetts

Chime music

Unlike orchestral instruments, the chime is typically played solo without further accompaniment. Most of a chimer’s repertoire is written to accommodate the peculiarities of the instrument, like the inability to dampen a bell’s ring when sounded. Chimers who wish to play piano or organ pieces, therefore, must specially arrange or adapt the music before sounding the bells.

Almost all chimes are transposing instruments. Typically, the bourdon – a chime’s largest bell which produces the lowest note – is connected to a 'low C’ on the keyboard. The remaining bells are then aligned to notes on the musical scale relative to the bourdon, regardless of individual pitch.

Looking for chime repertoire? ‘The Church Chimer’ by Tom G. Howell is an excellent anthology of musical compositions comprising 106 pieces in treble clef notation for eight bells.

Section image: The First Church of Christ, Scientist (also called The Mother Church) in Boston, Massachusetts, boasts a traditional chime of 18 bells.