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Why are the bells rung?

Church bells have been used to call people to church services and prayer for centuries. It is well known that the ringing of bells is used to joyously celebrate weddings and in, more sombre mood, to intone the sadness of funerals. The bells will often ring out on special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries or perhaps to pay a compliment to a parishioner, a clerk in holy orders or to mark important anniversaries. The casual listener will immediately recognise that some bells play hymns, songs and melodies. Those bells are called carillons or chimes. They do not swing, and the striking of the clappers is controlled by one person called the carillonneur or chimer, at a sort of console.

The bells of the towers used by bell ringers produce no recognizable tunes. Yet they are rung in sequences as disciplined and orderly as any music. These bells, rung today in the same way as they were in the Middle Ages, produce a rich cascade of sound. This is change ringing. Change ringing requires special bells, special "music", and ordinary people who enjoy climbing towers, working as a team, and performing "The Exercise." The human ingredient is critical because change ringing is very different from playing a carillon or chime. It is not a single person sitting at a keyboard. These are not computer or electronic devices. Change ringing depends on real bells, each swung in a complete circle by a single person at the end of a rope. So, for the five bells in our tower we need five people to ring all of them together.

How do the bells work?

Parts of a bell

A bell shown in the down position i.e with the mouth pointing downwards.

Bell, wheel and rope

Bells for change ringing are hung in strong frames, often made of oak or steel, that allow the bell to swing through 360 degrees. The bell is usually made of a hard alloy called bell metal, a form of bronze, in the ratio of approximately 3:1 copper to tin (78% copper, 22% tin) and ranges in weight from a few hundred pounds to several tons. A ring of bells consists of four to twelve bells - and sometimes even more. Each bell is attached to a wooden wheel with a rope running around it. The mechanism is so precise that the balance of the bell allows young or old, large or small and even the unfit to ring. With practice most learners can control a bell easily but there is always the opportunity to master new skills to enable the ringing of more complex series of changes. The harmonic richness of a swinging bell cannot be matched by the same bell hanging stationary, and each swinging bell requires one ringer's full attention.

The bells are arranged in the frame so their ropes hang in a circle in the ringing chamber below. Into each rope is woven a tuft of brightly coloured wool called a "Sally" (red, white and blue in this picture), which marks where the ringer catches the rope while ringing. Bells are rung from the "mouth up" position. With a pull of the rope, the bell swings through a full circle to the "up" position again. With the next pull it swings back in the other direction.

How are the bells rung?

Because of their size and the large swinging arc which results in great momentum, bells take about two seconds to rotate - they cannot be used to play ordinary "melodic" music. So instead they are made to follow one another in order, each ringing once before the first rings again. Ringing bells in a precise relationship to one another is the essence of change ringing. Rung in order from the lightest, highest pitched bell (always called the Treble) to the heaviest and lowest pitched (always called the Tenor), the bells strike in a sequence known as rounds, which ringers denote by a row of numbers:

Ringing rounds

To produce pleasing variations in the sound, bells are made to change places with adjacent bells in the row, for example:

All four pairs of bells swapped

These rows are the musical notation of change ringing. No bell moves more than one place in the row at a time, although more than one pair may change in the same row as shown in the example above.

The music of the bells

No amount of explanation of change ringing - or its pleasures - can be a substitute for listening to and ringing bells. However, the following may help enjoy change ringing by explaining what to listen for.

First, the rhythm should not vary from row to row. The rhythm provides the structure of sound within which the complex changes are heard. A good rhythm is the basis of good bell ringing. Listen for two rows rung in precise tempo, followed by a pause equal to the stroke of one bell, followed by two more rows and so on. The pause will help you determine which bell rings first. Second, listen for the bell that strikes the lowest note. This is the tenor. Often it strikes last, even when the other bells are changing. Listen for the highest bell, the treble, as it makes its way through the rows. Listen also for the rows in which large bells alternate with small bells throughout the row. These are considered particularly musical, and composers strive to include as many such rows as possible. Listeners with no particular musical training often have no difficulty hearing the difference between good and poor rhythm when the bells are ringing - however recognising a particular bell within the sequence of changes does take some practice.

Method ringing

In order to ring a different row with each pull of the rope, ringers have devised orderly systems of changing pairs of bells and these sets of sequences are known as 'methods'. In ringing a method the bells begin in rounds, ring changes according to the particular method being rung, and return to rounds without repeating any row along the way. These place changes produce musical patterns, with the sounds of the bells weaving in and out as if they were folk dancing with each other. Here is one of the simplest methods called Plain Hunt Minimus and rung on four bells:

Plain Hunt Minimus

You can see that the bells started in rounds with 1 2 3 4 and returned to rounds when the method was complete. The path that the No. 1 bell (the Treble) follows is highlighted in blue.

The more bells involved, the longer the bells can be rung without repeating a row, frequently referred to as a change. Five bells allow 120 changes (1x2x3x4x5). Six bells yield 720 changes (1x2x3x4x5x6), seven bells 5,040. Eight bells can be rung through 40,320 changes. The numbers increase rapidly!

There are quite literally hundreds of different methods and many have exotic names such as "Single Court Place Minimus", "St. Simon's Bob Doubles" and "Cambridge Surprise Minor". As it is impossible to hold a crib sheet whilst ringing the only way to ring any of these methods is to learn where your bell is supposed to be at any given time during the ringing. Easier said than done!

If you would like to hear a method being rung from start to finish here is a 'plain course' of 60 changes of Stedman Doubles. This is a very old method and is considered to be musical to listen to - but many ringers find it difficult to master! Click on the bell to listen...

Ring a plain course of Stedman Doubles

Peal ringing

Experienced ringers test and extend their abilities by ringing peals: 5,040 or more changes without breaks or repeating a row unless rung on fewer than seven bells. Peals usually last about three hours. The first peal was rung in England in 1715. A slightly easier option is to ring a quarter peal when a minimum of 1,260 rows has to be rung.

Change Ringing on Hand Bells

Change Ringing extends quite naturally from tower bells to hand bells. Freed from the worry about controlling a tower bell, each ringer takes two bells and so must keep in mind the position of each. Peals rung "in hand" command the same respect as those rung on tower bells.

A brief history

Chiming bells (swinging them through a short arc using a rope and a lever) goes well back into the Middle Ages, but it was not until the seventeenth century that ringers developed the full wheel which allowed enough control for orderly ringing. In 1668 Fabian Stedman published Tintinnalogia or the Art of Change Ringing, containing all the available information on systematic ringing. The theory of change ringing set forth by Stedman has been refined in later years but remains essentially unchanged today.

English change ringing has spread to many other parts of the world. North America, Australia, Canada and South Africa for example all have towers with bells hung for full circle ringing.

Why Do People Ring?

Change ringing is a non-competitive and non-violent team activity that is highly stimulating intellectually and mildly demanding physically, and makes a beautiful sound. It develops mental and physical skills in a context of communal effort. The intense concentration required brings euphoric detachment that cleanses the mind of the day's petty demands and frustrations. Many people ring as a contribution to church life. In addition, there is the companionable nature of ringers. The interdependence among individuals creates a tremendous fellowship. Visitors to a change ringing session will invariably be asked to join in if they are ringers. Almost all ringing sessions include time for socialising and chat.

Could I Be A Ringer?

Probably! Ringing is within the intellectual and physical reach of anyone who can ride a bicycle. If you can count, you know all the mathematics you need. You can become a very good ringer without knowing anything else about music. Some intense practice is required at the outset, and ringers practice once or twice a week. Most also ring before or after church on Sunday. Why not find out? Click here for contact details and find out how you can join in!

For a good idea of a typical ringing practice session please do take the time to watch this super YouTube video, "The Way of the Bells", made by a small group of students from the University of East Anglia with a great deal of co-operation from the ringers of St. Michael's, Aylsham in Norfolk.

Finally, a chance for you to hear, and see, some excellent ringing. Many thanks to members of SPSCR (Leeds) who are ringing and to YouTube for making the video available. This touch of Bristol Surprise Major and Stedman Triples takes place on the eight bells of St. Peter's, Bromyard, Herefordshire.