We’ve all heard that word before — a blend of German-sounding “ocks” and “schps” that, at least for me, conjures up images of old cuckoo clocks or Alpine adventures. But for those who don’t know, a glockenspiel is actually a small metallic xylophone with tuned keys that produce a high-pitched set of percussive tones. The word itself first appeared around 1825 and is exceptionally well named: Glock means “bells” and Spiel means “to play”. The instrument itself is “a play of bells”.
What differentiates the glockenspiel from the xylophone is that the latter has bars made of wood, and glockenspiels tend to be smaller and higher in pitch, with a range of 2.5 to 3 octaves typically in the high register.
Playing the Glockenspiel
The bars are set up like a keyboard or piano, so if you’ve ever played one of those before, it’s actually pretty easy to familiarize yourself with the tones. Hopefully you have access to a set of hard mallets with metal or plastic heads. They often come with the instrument. Rubber-headed mallets will usually produce a duller sound without the attack.
As the glockenspiel is a percussive instrument, you hold the mallets exactly as you would if you were hitting a snare drum. Straight out in front of your body, parallel to the ground.
When striking each note, aim for the middle of the bar. That’s where you’ll get the richest tone. For speed and fluidity, it’s best to alternate between left and right hands hitting every note, which requires a small cross-over motion for your arms as you move up and down the scale.
To get started: practice some scales moving upwards, starting with your left and alternating hands at each note. Then play the same scales back the other direction starting with your right hand.
It is possible to play three or four note chords on a glockenspiel by grasping two mallets in each hand and playing 3 or 4 notes at the same time. This is not easy, so check out this video that explains the three most common ways to do it:
In Popular Culture
The glockenspiel is featured in a ton of pop songs, including Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio”, Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run”, The Beatles’ “For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!”, Radiohead’s “No Surprises” and “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” and I think just about every song by Sigur Ros.
Fun bonus fact: it turns out glockenspiel is also another name for the game of Bunnock (or Game of Bones) popular in rural mid-western Canada, in which opponents try to knock down each other’s horse anklebones. It’s worth looking into, if you have an interest in these sorts of things…
Love learning about obscure instruments? Check in with the full “What the Heck Is a…” series here!