Carillons originated in the 15th century in Flanders, when bell-makers perfected their art to the point where bells could be cast with an exact tone. The greatest concentration of antique carillons is still found in Belgium, the Netherlands, and the northern regions of France and Germany, where they were commonly put in place by rich market towns as tokens of civic pride and status. They were most often housed in church towers, clock towers, or on municipal buildings, and the same holds true for those carillons that have been installed in other parts of the world since the art of casting precisely tuned bells was rediscovered in the late 19th century.
Since each separate note is produced by an individual bell, a carillon's musical range is determined by the number of bells it has. With fewer than 23 (two octaves), the instrument is considered a chime, not a true carillon. Average instruments have ranges of around four and a half octaves (47 bells), while the largest specimens, with as many as 77, can span six octaves. In comparison, standard grand pianos can play 88 different notes.
Seated in a cabin beneath the bells, the carillonneur presses down, with a cupped hand or fist, on a series of baton-like keys arranged in the same pattern as a piano keyboard. The keys activate levers and wires that connect directly to the bells' clappers; thus, as with a piano, the carillonneur can vary the intensity of the note according to the force applied to the key. In addition to the manual keys, the heavier bells are also connected to a series of pedals, offering the carillonneur a choice of two ways of playing the lower notes.
Noted carillons can be found in the following locations: