Tubular bells are used principally to perform two tasks: as a substitute for church bells and to add color. The practice of combining them with metallophones of all kinds was inspired by the music of eastern Asia and was adopted by orchestra music in the 20th century.
The extent to which tubular bells blend with other orchestra instruments depends on the sound structure. They are made in such a way that their harmonic series is as harmonic as possible which favors combinations with other orchestra instruments that have a harmonic structure of partials. Tubular bells still retain inharmonic partials, however, so that the bell-like character of the sound, which contains a much larger proportion of inharmonic components, is not lost.
Tubular bells and other orchestra instruments
These properties mean that a particularly good blend is achieved with metal idiophones with definite pitch: glockenspiel, vibraphone, gong.
In addition, they combine well with all instruments that have a sound composed of attack and resonance: gong, cymbals, tam-tam, timpani, harp, piano.
Tubular bells are always distinctly audible because their timbre is different from that of all the other orchestra instruments. A large dynamic spectrum, from extremely soft pp tremolos to great crescendos, is possible. Combinations particularly with the brass and woodwind playing fat chords create a stately, festive and magnificent setting. In such cases the brass support the strike note with sforzando attack and the resonance with sustained notes.
To achieve a particularly powerful sound, tubular bells and plate bells are played simultaneously (often by the same musician).