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Sleigh Bell Sound

Despite what some people say, the number marked on a crotal (sleigh bell) has no direct relationship with its pitch, although it is indeed true that larger bells usually have lower tones than smaller bells.

If you jingle a dozen or so antique horse bells, the pitch (main musical note) and timbre (quality of the sound) will vary, sometimes by quite a bit, even though the bells may all have the same diameter and design and are all from the same manufacturer. This variation in tone is a characteristic of antique horse bells that many people prize. The pitch and timbre of a bell are determined by many variables, including:
Thickness of the casting
Casting defects or cracks
Inclusions of foreign materials
Composition of the brass alloy
Shape of the bell
Dirt or oxidation in or on the bell
Size and composition of the jinglet inside
New reproduction bells tend to have a more consistent bright sound, because the casting methods and alloys used to make these bells are more consistent. They also don't have the 100 years or more of use that affects the tone, unlike our antique bells. Smaller antique sleigh bells tend to have a brighter, more bell-like sound. These bells usually sound lovely when rung alone, so they are a great choice for a loose gift bell.

Larger antique sleigh bells typically have a deeper, duller tone. Most larger bells are not good choices for single gift bells, because the larger bells seldom have the lovely bell-like tone that people normally expect from a single bell. In a group of three or more bells, however, the deep, clanging tone of the larger bells is essential to the classic, full sound that people love to hear.


Tuned sleigh bells

Some people wonder if horse bells were ever tuned to a specific pitch. To do this, a person would need to file or grind the throat (the slit across the bell) either wider or deeper. This will gradually change the bell's sound to the desired pitch.

After looking at over 4000 crotals in our inventory, there is no evidence that any of these bells were hand tuned. My conclusion is that sleigh bells used on horses were seldom, if ever, tuned.


Theater organs

Although they were not meant for horses, "tuned sleigh bell" sets were indeed made. They were installed in the lavish theater organs used to accompany silent movies during their short lifetime before the "talkies" took over. Silent movies were popular in the U.S. from about 1900 through the very early 1930s.

The end of the silent movie era was heralded in 1927, when "The Jazz Singer", the first talking motion picture, was released. The production of theater organs stopped during the Great Depression, which started in October 1929 and lasted through the early 1930s.

Today, a number of theater organs exist in good working order scattered throughout the U.S., but many more have been destroyed or damaged. For more about the history and preservation of theater organs, please visit the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS) website at http://www.atos.org/

Credit: I am grateful to physicist Dr. Al Sefl for educating me about tuned sleigh bells in theater organs. He is an expert at restoring theater organs and restoring their tuned sleigh bell sets.