How to Read Handbell Music: A Clear Guide for Beginners

Learning to read handbell music can be a rewarding experience, opening up opportunities to join local handbell choirs and enhance musical skills. Handbell music, while sharing many similarities with traditional sheet music, has some unique markings and techniques specific to the instrument, which can initially appear daunting to new players. However, with practice and dedication, anyone with a passion for music can grasp the art of reading handbell notation.

In handbell music, general music notation markings such as dynamics, slurs, articulation, accidentals, and accents are still present. What sets handbell music apart are the special technique-specific markings, including thumb damp, echo, and martellato. Familiarizing oneself with these unique symbols and techniques is essential for mastering the handbell instrument.

To begin, it is crucial to find a handbell choir or program in your area. Existing within churches, schools, and community groups, handbell choirs offer diverse settings that cater to various skill levels. Some choirs prioritize a structured, rigorous approach, while others emphasize enjoyment and camaraderie. Explore your options and find the handbell environment that best supports your personal journey in mastering handbell music.

Understanding Handbell Music

Handbell music is a unique form of sheet music that utilizes specific notation for the handbell instrument. It includes standard music notation, such as the treble clef and bass clef, with added symbols and notations that are unique to handbell music. Mastering handbell notation will enhance your ability to read and perform handbell music effectively.

Before diving into handbell notation, it is essential to have a solid understanding of music fundamentals. Familiarize yourself with the treble and bass clefs, as well as the staff and note placements. Handbell music is written on a grand staff, which comprises the treble clef and bass clef, just like piano music.

In addition to general music notation markings, such as dynamics, slurs, articulation, accidentals, and accents, handbell music includes additional technique-specific markings. These markings might indicate special techniques such as “thumb damp,” “echo,” and “martellato.” A handbell notation guide can be a helpful resource to have on hand while learning these unique symbols.

Handbell music often has a “Bells used Table” at the beginning or end of the music, allowing ringers to see which bells are needed for that specific piece. This table is especially useful for determining if the music requires accidentals (sharps and flats).

Each bell in handbell music represents a specific pitch, and the notation within the music tells the ringer which bell to play, as well as when to play it during the song. It is crucial to understand which bells are assigned to each ringer so that the points in time that they are supposed to ring within the sheet music can be marked appropriately.

Treble and Bass Clefs

Handbell music is written on a grand staff, which consists of the treble clef and bass clef. These clefs are essential elements when learning to read handbell music, as they determine the pitch of the notes on the staff.

The treble clef, also known as the G clef, is used for higher pitched notes. It spirals around the G line on the staff, indicating that notes on that line are G’s. The treble clef is commonly used for the soprano and alto handbell ranges.

In contrast, the bass clef, or F clef, is used for lower pitched notes. Its two dots sit above and below the F line, signifying that notes on this line are F’s. The bass clef is typically used for the tenor and bass handbell ranges.

When reading handbell music, it is important to familiarize oneself with both clefs, especially as handbell choirs often span several octaves. This requires the ability to read notes in both the treble and bass clefs. To ensure accurate interpretation of the sheet music, players should also internalize a beat, as they may or may not have a conductor guiding them.


Handbell music, like other forms of sheet music, uses a variety of symbols to convey instructions to the musicians. This section will cover some of the essential symbols that players are likely to encounter and their meanings.

Dynamics mark the volume at which a section of music should be played and are important to creating the desired mood or tone. Some common dynamic symbols include the letter “p” for piano, which means to play softly, and “f” for forte, which indicates to play loudly. These symbols can be combined or modified to indicate additional levels of volume, such as “pp” for pianissimo (very soft) and “ff” for fortissimo (very loud). Decrescendo or crescendo symbols (gradually decreasing or increasing volume) can also be found in handbell music, guiding the performers in smoothly transitioning between different dynamic levels.

In addition to the general dynamic markings, handbell music has unique symbols that specifically address techniques unique to handbells. For instance, the Brush Damp symbol (BD) instructs players to brush a ringing handbell downward against their chest to create a dampened sound. Another technique is Mart Lift (q#), which requires a musician to gently hit the bell into the foam table and immediately lift it to create a subtle lingering sound.

Some other common notations in handbell music include accents that draw attention to certain notes, fermatas that indicate a note should be held longer than its usual duration, and staccato markings that indicate notes should be played shorter than their standard rhythmic value.

Understanding these symbols and notation is crucial for handbell players to express the composer’s intent and to perform the music accurately. By incorporating a combination of dynamics, unique handbell techniques, and general music notation, musicians can create an enjoyable and harmonious handbell performance.

The Notation

When reading handbell music, it’s essential to understand the specific notations used for different techniques. This section will briefly cover some common handbell notation symbols and their meanings.

Pluck is a technique where the musician quickly grasps the clapper and strikes the casting with it, creating a staccato sound. In handbell sheet music, a small cross (“+”) is often used above the note to indicate the plucking technique.

Martellato (often shortened as “mart”) is an Italian term meaning “hammered.” It’s a percussive technique where the ringer forcefully strikes the handbell onto a padded surface like a padded table or a foam pad. This technique results in a sharp, accented sound with a quick decay of the tone. The notation for martellato is typically a small “x” or “mart” written above or below the note.

Damp refers to stopping the ringing of a handbell by touching it to the body or a padded surface. Controlled damping not only stops unwanted ringing but also creates musical effects like staccato or accents. In handbell music, a “d” or “R” (for “ring” or “release”) is frequently shown above or below the note to signal the damp technique. Sometimes, a curved line (called a “laissez vibrer” or “LV” tie) is used to connect different notes, indicating they should continue ringing or resonate until the LV tie ends.

Shake is a technique in which the musician rapidly moves a ringing handbell back and forth, resulting in a trill-like effect. To notate a shake, a wavy horizontal line (known as a “tremolo” sign) is drawn above the note or chord. The shake commences at the first note and concludes at the end of the tremolo sign.

These techniques and notations are crucial for musicians when interpreting handbell sheet music accurately. By familiarizing themselves with these notations, handbell ringers can confidently play various techniques and dynamics, enriching the overall musical performance.

Two Octaves vs. Three Octaves

When reading handbell music, it’s important to understand the difference between two-octave and three-octave music. Handbell choirs are sized by the number of octaves they can play, with the smallest common configuration being two octaves, and larger groups playing three or more octaves.

Two-Octave Handbell Choirs typically play notes ranging from G4 (the G below middle C) to G6 (at the top of the treble clef). These choirs have a more limited range compared to three-octave choirs, which can affect the musical selections they can perform.

A couple of aspects to consider when reading two-octave handbell music are:

  • Limited note range: With fewer notes available, two-octave music pieces might focus more on melody and harmony within a constricted range.
  • Accessibility: The smaller size and range can actually be beneficial for less experienced handbell ringers, making it easier for them to learn and play pieces.

Three-Octave Handbell Choirs have an expanded range, playing notes from C4 (middle C) to C7 (three octaves above middle C). This additional octave provides more possibilities in terms of musical arrangements and choices.

When reading three-octave handbell music, consider the following:

  • Expanded note range: The wider range of notes allows for more complex and intricate pieces, with a greater variety of harmonies and textures.
  • Increased difficulty: With more notes involved, three-octave music may present a higher level of challenge for handbell ringers, particularly for those who are new to handbell playing.

When selecting handbell music for your choir, consider the group’s size and experience. Two-octave configurations may be more suitable for smaller or less experienced groups, while three-octave choirs can take on more demanding pieces.

Covering Changes and Accents in Handbell Music

When learning to read handbell music, one of the first things a musician must understand is how to interpret changes and accents within a piece. These markings help performers convey the composer’s intentions and enhance the musical expression. By familiarizing yourself with these notations, you will be able to play handbell music more effectively and confidently.

Handbell music typically includes general music notation markings, such as dynamics, slurs, articulation, accidentals, and accents. These notations are essential for indicating changes in volume, note connections, and emphasized beats. While many of these markings are consistent with other musical instruments, handbell music also features technique-specific notations, like “thumb damp,” “echo,” and “martellato.”

Changes in Handbell Music

  • Dynamics: Indicate the volume at which specific passages or notes should be played. Common dynamic markings include piano (soft), forte (loud), crescendo (gradually increasing in volume), and decrescendo (gradually decreasing in volume).
  • Accidentals: Modify the pitch of a note (sharp, flat, or natural) and are typically placed directly before the notehead.
  • Articulation: Show how specific notes or passages should be played, affecting the duration and/or connection between notes. Examples include legato (smoothly connected), staccato (short and detached), tenuto (sustained), and accents (emphasis on a particular note).

Accents and Slurs in Handbell Music

  • Accents: Emphasize specific notes or beats within a piece. They can be indicated by markings such as ‘>’ (accent) and ‘sfz’ (sforzando, a sudden, strong emphasis).
  • Slurs: Connect two or more notes of different pitches, indicating that the notes should be played smoothly and legato. They can also be used to show phrasing, helping musicians interpret the flow and expression of the music.

As you become more proficient in reading handbell music, deciphering changes and accents will become second nature. By understanding these markings and applying them to your playing, you can bring a greater level of expressiveness and musicality to your performance.

You May Also Like