The German word (Glockenspiel) translates as “bell chime” and has been use to mean both a carillon and a set of small bells. The term now is generally restricted to tuned graduated metal bars that produce bright, silvery tones. The bars may be struck with a keyboard mechanism or, more commonly, by mallets, the latter allow a variety of tone quality regulated by the choice of beaters and the instrument. A percussion instrument in modern orchestras, the glockenspiel was first used to major effect by Handel in his oratorio Saul in 1738. Another noteworthy early orchestral use occurs in Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791). Wagner and Tchaikovsky also wrote music for the instrument. The bell lyre is a portable and visually colorful form ubiquitous in marching bands.
The glockenspiel is much smaller and higher in pitch. When used in a marching or military band, the bars are sometimes mounted in a portable case and held vertically. In orchestral use, the bars are mounted horizontally. A pair of hard mallets is generally used to strike the bars, although if laid out horizontally, a keyboard may be attached to the instrument to allow chords to be more easily played.
The glockenspiel's range is limited to the upper register, and usually covers about two and a half to three octaves. In sheet music, the notes to be played by the glockenspiel are written two octaves lower than they will sound when played. When struck, the bars give a very pure, bell-like sound.