As the glockenspiel is at one end of the pitched bell-like orchestral percussion, so the tubular bells are at the other end. Of metal construction, the tubes, or bells are mounted in a standing rack, each one suspended with wires, and all bells go down through a rack which is lined with felt. This is the damper with which the performer can instantly stop the rich and prolonged resonance the tubular bells create when struck. The performer usually strikes the crown, or top of the bell with a wooden or hard plastic hammer, or mallet, but felt covered mallets are also used to produced a muffled, almost eerie tone.
Like the other “keyboard based” pitched percussion instruments, the tubular bells are arranged in a semitonal configuration, similar to an upright piano keyboard, and generally cover 2 octaves. Unlike other pitched percussion, the tone of the tubular bells is less defined, and a sense of pitch can be more felt, than clearly heard, as each bell has complex overtones, that mingle and mix to “confuse” the sense of pitch placement. It would be useful for example, for the composer to visit several concerts featuring music written for the tubular bells, and sit in different parts of the concert hall, focusing on the confused sense of pitch the tubular bells eminate, dependent on distance and reflections from surrounding surfaces.
As a substitute for full sized church bells, the tubular bells do a credible job within a concert environment, but lacking in real power. Like the glockenspiel, tubualr bells are a colour instrument, and should be used sparingly and with careful consideration, to maximise the effect.