On One Instrument

A piano is one instrument with 88 keys (52 white, 36 black). Typically, one PianoKeysperson reads many notes on piano music to create rhythmic patterns aimed to please the audience. I’m not a piano player, but I admire the pianist’s skills not only with their hands, but their ability to read and play so many notes on a page. Yet, a piano is one instrument played by one person.

MusicalNotesFrequencyBands and orchestras are large groups of different instruments working together as a unit to create a complex musical sound. However, just like the piano, each member is responsible for one instrument – and their music typically displays the notes for one instrument. Therefore, it is the conductor’s responsibility to bring the instrumentation of the ensemble together to please the audience.

Although they also produce music for an audience, handbells are different because they are one instrument that multiple people play together. I imagine you never thought of a handbell choir being one instrument, but it is – Therefore, this post aims to explain this single instrument with its numerous freestanding pieces.

For starters, the number of bells in a choir varies depending on the number of Handbellsmembers and their skills. One handbell is the equivalent to one key on the piano. In our choir, that’s about 60 bells for 13-14 people – but every song doesn’t require every bell. (Note: If we had the players and money, we could add about 36 more bells.) Occasionally, music also requires some players to use handchimes, which I will work in later.

For those thinking that piano music looks busy, handbell music is more so because composers place all the notes for the entire choir together. Yep – that means the player must have the ability to locate their notes among the jungle. (I’m responsible for 2-4 notes/bells).

Besides the all the notes and standard information as key, tempo, and dynamics, handbell music has additional marking for the techniques that create a variety of sounds. Terms include marts, ring touch, let vibrate, mallets, plucks, echoes, damp, mart lifts, swings, gyros, shakes, mallet rolls, and more. (Yep, symbols for each technique.) Players can also adjust the hardness of the clamper inside the bell. (The soft setting sound is mellow, while the hard setting sound is bright; and, there is an in-between setting.

See this short (less than 2 minutes) video demonstrating some techniques.


Just like other musical ensembles, the conductor has the responsibility of bringing it all together – but with handbells, the conductor orchestrates multiple people playing one instrument – quite the challenge! Now watch this video to see everything come together in a short, spurt of madness from Ring of Fire! (Watch for the different techniques.)


Earlier, I mentioned handchimes. Like handbells, its one handchime per note – but they produce a different sound. Besides handchimes, handbell choirs may incorporate other instruments. We have played with piano, organ, trumpet, violin, flute, drums, contrabass bars, other percussion, and singers.

In closing, I hope this has helped you understand what is involved, so now enjoy the Raleigh Ringers with handbells, handchimes, cello, flute, and mallet chimes – and notice all the bells behind them that are not used in this piece. Ah yes, who would have imagined that the complexity of one instrument.


Note: Special thanks to Madam Weebles for the thought triggering this post. 

98 thoughts on “On One Instrument

  1. Reminds me of the time when, after having played a simple early-electronic organ, somebody tried to talk me into playing an honest-to-God church pipe organ – complete with foot bellows! Kinda reminded me of those people in the 60s and 70s entertainment shows, spinning the plates on sticks. You don’t need to be on both coke and speed, but it sure as heck helps! :D

      • Actually, I got to see a little of this on Thanksgiving Day! WGN, a major station back in Chicago, has played a retrospective of its’ three most famous shows every year on Thanksgiving, one of them being “Bozo’s Circus” which regularly featured such acts. One of the other shows, “Garfield Goose and Friends”, was where I first saw “Clutch Cargo”! :D
        Thanks, I appreciate the thoughtfulness!

        • I was more of a “Garfield Goose” and “Ray Rayner” guy myself. Ray’s morning battles with do-it-yourself projects looked like Navy SEALS assaulting a craft store – and Ray ALWAYS lost. And his meetings with his nemesis “Chelveston” the duck were worthy of the Three Stooges!
          (Sigh.) Thanks, Frank, now I’m good and homesick! Dang you anyway! ;) (Hmm…. a thought occurs. A joint post, you featuring your favourite morning show as a kid, me with Ray, exchanged between blogs – even though my readership is just a microcosm of yours. As a certain science officer often said, “Fascinating”…..)

  2. ohhh I love the sound of the handbells – at Christmas time especially. I used to play the oboe – in the orchestra so the intricacies of all the instruments and such together are not a big mystery to me but the handbell choir – i like how you defined it as one instrument – I never thought of it as such but it makes the beauty of the music even more magical.

  3. i can’t even comprehend what one must know in order to comprehend even beginning to play a piano. i just see black and white rectangles, which only increases my admiration for those who can play.

    • Shimon,
      Given your appreciation for music and your lack of awareness of handbell music (I recall from a past comment), I’m not surprised that you enjoyed this post. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. A very interesting post, Frank, and with lovely music too. I find reading piano music is easy, but that because I had a good grounding as a child.I suppose it’s the same as learning any language. I’d never really thought about handbell choirs until I found your blog. The conductor of any orchestra has my utmost respect. I love this quote by art and music writer, Christopher Andreae, “He is not all musician; he is also part bus conductor in charge of a moving vehicle, who dutifully hurries people off and onto it at designated intervals.” It’s a very responsible job, and he has to be really good at it, or total chaos could ensue. :D

    • Paradise,
      Well said about the conductor, and I love the quote. Because I know you play the piano, I was hoping you would add something … so thank you. Meanwhile, I know you probably watched the 3 videos as well … and how about that craziness in the second one! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Doggy,
      Many thanks. Many people don’t recall the intricate nature involved with handbells. I recall someone telling me how much they appreciated seeing a demo on the different techniques … which they thought, as an audience member, helped them appreciate the performance. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Your post advances the cause of music education at a fundamental level. Thanks for pointing out the connection between the piano keyboard, where one person is capable of playing the melodies and harmonies at the same time (plus percussion sounds/rhythms on digital keyboards), and the instrumental ensemble where one person is assigned to play single lines of music, or in the case of the bell choir, a few notes within a single line.
    It has been my experience teaching music in the public schools that people who have not been trained in music, for example some of the parents of students in band, orchestra, choir, and electronic music classes, look upon such connections as almost magical. I feel the same when I hear someone speaking a foreign language or observe a mathematician utilizing complex equations.

    • Tim,
      Thanks for sharing many great points through your experiences. Interestingly, music, spoken words, and mathematics are each languages expressing messages in different manners. Thanks for commenting.

  6. When I did cubicle life, we had a lady who played handbells in her church. She would get extremely nervous when it was ‘performance’ night. She would gush about it all day long…we would tease her constantly, “You are just ringing a bell!” (it was all in good nature and she always laughed), but I see from your post there is a lot more to it than just ringing a bell – a definite skill. Enjoyed the post and the vidoes. (me, 4 years of clarinet, as a kid)

    • Hood,
      Glad I was able to elevate your understanding. An yes, I’ve heard similar comments!

      As a side note, handbell music is rated in terms of difficulty from 1 (easiest) to 6 … and with incremental + and – … so the music itself starts to get complex around level 3. Then again, hearing a difficult from a choir that has no business playing it is another story. Thanks for sharing and commenting!

    • Java,
      Piano players amaze me, and can take the listener on a journey. On the other hand, they need use all the fingers to move about the keyboard …. whereas the handbells are the keyboard, but 2 hands control a small number, while everyone’s hands have to work in rhythm. Thanks for commenting.

    • Fasab,
      The coordination of people is a great phrase. As one can tell in the second and third video, members work together as one to play the one instrument. My analogies are just that, but not to say one is harder than the other – but I just wanted to share with others what handbells actually are – one instrument with many moving parts. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Not playing any instrument what so ever – when younger I wanted to play piano .. but none left over in Sunday school, so I had to practice on the organ, enjoyed for a couple of years. Not really my thing.
    Very fascinating for me this with handbells – you brought that into my world. Thanks … that video from Sarajevo wonderful .

  8. Lacking even the slightest musical skill myself, I’m completely in awe and appreciation for those who do possess this gift. Thanks Frank for a wonderful introduction. The videos are great!

  9. One doesn’t think of a choir of handbells as one instrument, but of course their are. Must be quite a challenge to synchronize all the bells in a choir – or more precisely the people behind the bells. Thanks for an informative post.

    • Otto,
      Once I figured the one instrument theme, writing this post was easy. My aim was to help people understand what is really going on, so it seemed to work. “Synchronization” is a great word. Our director constantly mentions about blending your bells with the others … which also means at the same volume and quality of sound. To increase the challenge, some bells are naturally brighter than others, let alone the ringing method differences between ringers … some are naturally louder or softer than others .. thus part of the challenge. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful insight!

  10. Yay, the long-awaited handbell post! Thank you so much for posting this, Frank. I never knew handbell musical notation was so complicated. I’m terrible at sight reading *piano* music, I think I’d be hopeless at doing handbells—especially since I’d have to watch out for my notes in the middle of the whole sheet of music! Gives me even more respect for handbell ringers now. Right on, Frank!!

    • Weebs,
      I’m not a good sight reader, so I know your pain … but once I get the flow, I get into the feel. For an upcoming Christmas Eve piece, I told the player beside me that I was a syncopated type of guy. (I had the feel, while some others were struggling with the rhythms.

      Another tip – to get one’s notes to stand out, highlighters are wonderful aids. Orange for one natural, green for another, pink/blue/purple for the accidentals. Actually this is the first year most of us are going without the markers.

      Glad you saw this and thanks for the inspiration!

  11. It all sounds much too complicated for me, Frank. Glad my parents forced the piano on me (I rebelled by taking up the violin briefly but the noise of a child learning the violin was apparently too much for the neighbors to handle). I think I’ll pass this post on to M who plays percussion and is currently teaching himself to play what he calls “bells” (looks like a xylophone to me). He’s quite proficient at the triangle, drums, cymbals, and all those other percussion things that require one to synchronize. Seriously (because I was being a bit lighthearted there), I am in awe of those of you who play handbells (and although it sounds trite in some way but not meant that way, my husband’s best friend is part of handbell choir. Pretty awesome stuff. :D

    • Robin,
      This would be good for M to see because some people actually put handbells in the percussion family! You are not being trite at all. I just figured it was time to explain more of this stuff because it isn’t simple. Let me know what he thinks. Thanks for commenting.

  12. Thanks for that primer on handebelling, Frank.
    One thing you don’t note in the differences between handbell and piano, is that one driven soul can be a piano wizard.
    A handbell orchestra doesn’t really work unless a whole bunch of people wed themselves to the same purpose.
    How can beautiful music not come out of that?

  13. I love Christmas Eve Sarajevo. I have the recording, but haven’t seen the performance. This was beautiful. I play piano, but have always wished I took another instrument to have the enjoyment of playing with a group. In another life I would have loved to be the conductor. I just know I want the music all around me, and as loud as possible! :-) I think the handbell choir would be fantastic. I would enjoy the challenge!

    • Debra,
      I agree, Christmas Eve Sarajevo is a wonderful tune! Ah ha … as a piano player you know that handbell music would be hectic – thus probably would require at two pianists. I think every musician dreams of conducting sometime! Thanks for commenting.

  14. Awesome article!! I always tend to forget how foreign bells are to non-bell people. I remember this one time we were working with the conductor of our local philharmonic for a performance we were going to do with them, and half way through the rehearsal (when we were ringing a particularly tricky set of runs) she put down her arms and said something to the effect of “I never realized until just now how incredibly difficult it is to play runs on handbells”. So even well trained, seasoned musicians don’t understand our instrument.

    • Derek,
      Thanks so much for dropping by to add to this. Several years ago we hosted a small, multi-choir concert/festival. Part of the program, our conductor did a short presentation on techniques, which our choir demonstrated. My friends who attended loved it because they never knew … and I’ve always remembered that.

      Runs, in the level of music, that the top groups do have to be incredibly difficult! Cheers for being able to do that!!!! Thanks for visiting and adding to this post!

  15. Having played piano since I was 8, I can tell you that reading the music becomes rather like reading a book… if you stare at each note/letter individually you get lost, but all together it makes sense.

    But yet again, you enlighten me, as until now I thought Christmas Eve in Sarajevo was written by Trans-Siberian Orchestra (they do a wonderful rendition! I’m surprised nobody mentioned it).

    • I would think that most people would associate that song with TSO … but according to Wikipedia, it was written & recorded in 1995.

      Thanks for explaining reading piano music … which actually explains a lot to me. Thanks for sharing!!!

  16. I haven’t been doing much blogging recently – many thanks for inviting me to the concert Frank. The music is so beautiful and it’s so fascinating to watch the musicians, it’s left me speechless…. :-)
    – I enjoyed the little lesson in how the different sounds are made with the bells
    – cannot imagine how the conductor synchronizes it all
    – was fascinated to watch the woman ringing the “long sticks” that sound like church bells
    – and the bells played like drums….

    • Rosie,
      I let you know about this post because I knew you would enjoy it.

      The “long sticks” are the handchimes … the longer they are, the lower the note. Actually, in the last video, you can see some of largest chimes, which actually never get picked up – but are struck in place.

      Watching the different techniques helps understand the different sounds that handbells can produce … and in the second video, one can see many techniques in their madness.

      Thanks for stopping by Rosie and commenting.

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  19. Wow. I remember so well when our church got our set of handbells. I was in the first choir that used them. Handbells are a very special way to express music….I loved every minute and really loved remembering that time reading this post.

    • Prompt,
      Welcome first-time commenter. Glad this brought back memories for you. Since this post, I stepped away from playing … but I hope to see the Raleigh Ringers very soon.

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