Orchestra chimes are also called orchestral chimes or tubular bells. They are a type of percussion instrument made of hollow metal tubes that are cut to different lengths and suspended as a group from a frame. Each tube makes a different note when tapped. Some chimes are used in unison to produce a single sound when shaken. Others are meant to be tapped individually with a wooden mallet to create a single note with each tap.
A set of orchestra chimes will normally have six or more tubes. Some sets are quite small and can easily be held in one hand, while others are too large for a single person to carry. The size most often seen as part of an orchestra is a large set of 20 or more chimes suspended in a frame. Specialty sets of many different sizes are common in certain types of music, particularly in some kinds of Latin music.
Not all orchestral music calls for the use of orchestra chimes, but they are used in many pieces that call for church bells or similar effects. They can also be used to back the melody or to provide harmony. Tubular bells are generally preferred to regular bells in an orchestra because the tubes produce notes that are clearer and more easily controlled. They can also be quickly dampened, stopping the sound abruptly, or allowed to reverberate until they stop naturally.
Orchestra chimes may be made from different metals such as aluminum, bronze or brass. This can greatly affect the weight of the chimes and the portability of the set. The frames are very sensitive to stress and may be damaged when being transported to concert sites. Lighter-weight chimes are particularly useful for musicians that perform in various locations., since they cause less stress to the frames.
The tubes in a set of orchestra chimes may occasionally need to be replaced due to damage. The most common cause is cracks in the tubes due to wear or from being dropped. Other problems that may come up are usually related to the suspension of the tubes, the frame loosening or pulling apart, or the damper system not functioning properly.
Large tubular bells were originally designed to be used in church towers, but scaled-down versions soon began to be used as orchestra chimes. In many places tubular bells continue to be used in church belfries. These are normally operated by someone inside the building playing a keyboard. This in turn operates hammers that strike the individual tubes in order to produce music.