#MyrtleMondays: The Carillon Call


In Cold-Blooded Myrtle (Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries #3), some of the action takes place at a local belltower—the Campanile—site of a mysterious vanishing years earlier. Like Myrtle, I happened to grow up in a college town with a Campanile, hearing the bells chime over the campus. But if you are not so lucky to have your own backyard belltower, let’s take a closer look at this fascinating instrument.

The Iowa State Campanile, inspiration for the Schofield College Campanile, circa 1900

First, some terminology. Campanile is Italian for “belltower,” and refers to the building itself. The bells—the chimes, the instrument—are the carillon, and the musician who plays the carillon is called a carillonist or carillonneur.

ISU carillonneur Tin-shi Tam at the carillon’s clavier, or keyboard.  (Bob Elbert, 2008)

Because a carillon is such a large instrument, the musician sits at some remove from her bells. Here is a look inside the belfry of Worcester Cathedral‘s carillon in the 1870s. See how massive those giant bells are?

It had been some time since I’d heard the bells of Iowa State, and as I was doing research for Cold-Blooded Myrtle, I reached out to Doris Aman, carillonist at the University of Rochester’s Hopeman Memorial Carillon, who helped me visualize the sound profile, with this haunting and evocative description:

The audible distance for the bells is conditioned on wind direction, size and height of the bells… a host of influences changing according to daily weather since sound has wave quality. Nature plus performer plus bells makes a magical mix. At certain points the bells here produce a double ring, even a triple ring as they bounce off the campus buildings and roofs.  There are confusing dead points between buildings where the bells sound either in front or behind you. Brick terraces may cause the sound to be very live, while buildings set close may create a sound tunnel.

Think of it like a maze where your sense of direction can become confused if you use the bells as your compass center source (or) a fountain where the water (bell sound) droplets hit and bounce, forming new wave sources as they land. The waves intersect and spread widely until they hit a solid barrier. –Doris Aman, carillonist, University of Rochester

But, of course, there is no substitute for hearing the carillon bells themselves! Enjoy this excerpt from one of Tin-Shi Tam’s performances at ISU:

And to hear what it sounds like from without, here is the song Myrtle learns to play, “Westminster Quarters,” on the carillon at Samford University in Alabama:

For more information on carillons and carillon music, visit The Guild of Carillonneurs of North America. You might even find a carillon near you that needs guest players!