Have you ever hiked across an Alpine cow pasture in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland? Then, you may have noticed that the air is filled with the sound of bells. Each and every cow in a more loosely connected herd carries one around on its heavy leather collar. It is a very peaceful sound, for sure. These bells are called Kuhglocken (pronounce ‘koo-glockn, meaning cow bells) in the German language.
With each and every movement of the cow, the bell makes its sound. Of course, this is on purpose, as the herdsmen can find their cows way easier by sound than by hiking through crevasses and gorges, up steep slopes, and around mountain tops. Sometimes, hiking paths lead straight through a herd’s pasture – I have been chased by cows one time as a teenager. The peaceful experience ended right there … But here is an impression that you are more likely to encounter:
As we enjoy the sound of bells so much, it was probably just a matter of a very short time that herds people discovered they could use these bells for musical purposes, as well. So, they arranged them like an instrument in a tuned manner. Whereas the German language calls these Alpenglocken (pronounce ‘Ulpn-glockn, i.e. Alpine bells), the English language created the term Almglocken for them, the German word Alm meaning Alpine meadow. Usually, they are played by one single person; over here, we often hear entire ensembles who play just one or two bells per person – an incredible accomplishment of precise coordination! Not just the German Volksmusik has embedded this effective instrument. So have composers such as Gustav Mahler, who often reverted to realistic and traditional phrases in his work, Richard Strauss, or Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Musicians, of course, also know another kind of bell, this one a clapperless percussion instrument. It’s known as cowbell or Kuhglocke. Here, the German wording gets a bit confused, as the original Kuhglocke as IS in music is called Alpenglocke and the clapperless one is called Kuhglocke – no logic there, for sure. The cowbell’s distinct sound characterizes a lot of Western African, Caribbean, and South American music. I have also heard the sound being described as defining party-time in music. Progressive rock music uses the instrument, as well. Here is an interesting video about Almglocken aka Alpenglocken and cowbells aka Kuhglocken:
The cowbell also has found its way into sports as a way to cheer on a team or a single athlete. Why the cowbell? I could imagine that in Europe it comes naturally with winter sports – Alpine to the core. Maybe, over here, it is because, originally, team sports used to be played in cow pastures a lot. So, one could simply make use of what was around as a noisemaker anyway. But that is all speculation. You can read up on Wikipedia what rules even apply to the use of cowbells during sports events in some states. The screens in an arena or stadium might also recommend “more cowbell” to improve the performance. Although it is probably taken way more seriously by the sports fans than by the audience of this famous skit with Christopher Walken:
Somehow, I wonder now – is there any piece of music that combines Almglocken and cowbells? Let me know when you come up with one …