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From carriages to carols...

Vathsala V P, Dec 23 2017, 22:12 IST

It's Christmas time, folks! Time to be merry when melodious carols ring in the spirit of the season. And, no carol-singing is complete without the accompanying musical instruments. While guitar, piano and drums are an inseparable part of carol-singing, there are a few other instruments that add to the melody but are not popularly known. One such instrument is sleigh bells.

Played by almost all carolling groups, both professional and amateur, sleigh bells produce the sound of a jingle and are hence known as jingle bells, too. Used widely as an auxiliary percussion instrument, sleigh bells are quite popular among carol singers as one needs no formal training in playing it. On the other hand, anyone with a keen sense of music can play it alongside the singing of carols. It is played by holding the instrument with one hand by the handle and shaking it, or by hitting it against the palm of the other hand.

This shake-rattle idiophone owes its origin to Europe, while its history dates back to the medieval times when automobiles were unheard of and horse-drawn carriages and sleighs were the norms.

These bells, in large numbers, were fastened to harnesses used on horses to alert passersby to make way for the vehicle.

They were extremely useful, especially when used in sleighs that made absolutely no noise while moving on the snow.

The transition from their use in horse-drawn carriages and sleighs to a musical instrument happened gradually, especially after Mozart is believed to have used them in one of his works in the late-18th century.

The melodious 'jingle' is produced by loose metal pellets in small round metal balls that are attached to a leather strap, which is in turn fixed to a piece of wood shaped like a hairbrush. It is both easy to carry and easy to play, becoming the most favourite carol-singing accompaniment.

Another interesting instrument is the chime, which is nothing but a carillon-like instrument with less than 23 bells. To understand this instrument, we need to familiarise ourselves with carillons, a set of bells that's cast and tuned to extreme accuracy.

Generally fixed to the towers of a church or municipal buildings, a carillon has a minimum of 23 bells and weighs in tons. They are played by striking hand and pedal keyboards whose keys activate levers and wires attached to the metal clappers inside the bells.

In the middle ages, chimes were used in church musical performances as a substitute for carillons, and to this day, they enjoy their place in not just musical performances, but in carol-singing, too.

Merry Christmas!

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