Bell-ringing, also known as campanology, is the art and practice of ringing bells in a rhythmic and controlled manner. It is traditionally associated with church towers and belfries and is used for various purposes, such as calling the faithful to worship, marking significant events, and tolling in times of mourning, remembrance or great joy and celebration. Besides its church connection, bell-ringing can also be performed on handbells or carillons.
Picture Credit: Mechanism of a bell hung for English full-circle ringing.
Attribution: Dougsim, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:English_full_circle_bell_mechanism.png
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
- History: Bell-ringing has a long history, dating back several centuries. The English style of bell-ringing, known as “full circle ringing,” developed in the late 16th century and is still widely practised today.
- Techniques: Full circle bell-ringing involves swinging the bells through a complete 360-degree arc in a controlled manner. Ringers use ropes attached to the bell clappers to control the timing and strike the bells in a specific sequence.
- Change Ringing: Change ringing is a specific style of bell-ringing where the order of the bells’ striking patterns constantly changes. It is a complex and mathematical exercise, requiring a group of ringers to work together to produce a series of different permutations called “changes.” I’ll explain more about change ringing later in this paper.
- Bell-Ringing Societies and Associations: Bell-ringers often organise themselves into local societies and associations. These groups provide training, support, and opportunities for bell ringers to come together, learn new techniques, and ring for various occasions.
- Handbell Ringing: Handbell-ringing is a smaller-scale version of bell-ringing where individuals or small groups play tuned handbells by ringing them with their hands. Handbell choirs often perform intricate melodies and harmonies.
- Carillon: A carillon is a musical instrument consisting of a set of bells usually housed in a bell tower. Carillonneurs are specifically skilled musicians who play carillons. The instrument consists of bells usually housed in a bell tower and played using a keyboard-like mechanism.
- What is a ‘bell’: A bell is a directly struck idiophone percussion instrument. Most bells have the shape of a hollow cup that, when struck, vibrates in a single strong strike tone, with its sides forming an efficient resonator. The strike may be made by an internal “clapper” or “uvula”, an external hammer, or, in small bells, by a small loose sphere enclosed within the body of the bell (jingle bell).
Bell-ringing is not only a musical art form but also a social and community activity. It requires skill, coordination, and teamwork. Bell-ringers take pride in their local traditions and contribute to the cultural and historical fabric of their communities.
A bell-ringer is a person who rings a bell, usually a church bell, pulling on a rope or by other mechanisms. Despite some automation of bells for random swinging, there are still many active bell-ringers in the world, particularly those with an advanced ringing tradition, such as full-circle or Russian ringing, which are artistic and skilled performances difficult to automate.
The term “campanologist” refers to someone who studies or is knowledgeable about bells and the field of campanology rather than a bell ringer:
- Campanology encompasses the study of bells, including their history, construction, tuning, and the various methods and techniques used to ring them. It is a broader field that encompasses the study of bells as musical instruments, their cultural significance, and the technical aspects involved in their operation.
- On the other hand, bell-ringers actively engage in the physical act of ringing bells, usually in a tower or belfry, using ropes and other mechanisms. They are often associated with change ringing, where a group of ringers create complex sound patterns by controlling the timing and sequence of the bell strikes.
Bells from the Past
The earliest archaeological evidence of bells dates from the 3rd millennium BC and is traced to the Yangshao culture of Neolithic China. Clapper-bells made of pottery have been found in several archaeological sites. The pottery bells later developed into metal bells. In West Asia, the first bells appear in 1000 BC.
The earliest metal bells, with one found in the Taosi site and four in the Erlitou site, are dated to about 2000 BC. With the emergence of other kinds of bells during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 – c. 1050 BC), they were relegated to subservient functions; at Shang and Zhou sites, they are also found as part of the horse-and-chariot gear and as collar-bells of dogs. By the 13th century BC, bells weighing over 150 kg were being cast in China.
Picture Credit: View of the bells and transmission system of the 49-bell Peace Carillon, Aarschot, Belgium.
Attribution: Marc Vew, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vredesbeiaard_aarschot.jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Types and Different Methods of Bell-Ringing
Bell-ringing is often associated with the Church of England, but it is also practised in other denominations and non-religious settings. I hope you find the following information useful and interesting:
- English full-circle ringing: In England, it is estimated there are about 40,000 bell-ringers ringing on rings of bells in the English full-circle style. This type of ringing cannot be automated because of the large rotating masses of the bells and the exact regulation of the speed of striking that is required. The high level of control exerted by ringers means the bells can be struck with both accurate and equal spacing, and can change their striking pattern at each stroke. In addition, the Doppler effect due to the movement of the bell when it is struck, and the sharp attack of the strike and the fast die-away due to damping by the clapper, imparts a unique musical sound. This style of ringing takes place every week in several thousand belfries in England and, to a lesser extent, other English-speaking nations. It is supported by the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, founded in 1891, which is dedicated to representing change ringers around the world.
- Bolognese full-circle ringing: This system originated during the Middle Ages and was perfected in the 19th century. It is a form of full circle ringing which requires the bell ringers to manually swing the bells whilst standing beside them in the bell chamber. It was originally designed for an ensemble of four or five bells.
Nowadays, it is also sometimes used for a set of six bells. The bells are never counterbalanced. They are mounted on a wooden structure called the castle, and flanked by a wooden support called the goat. The bells are not very heavy, as the rotation has to be fast. Generally, every bell that weighs less than 800 kg (16 cwt) is rung by one person. The bell ringers must be in contact with the bells and mechanical devices are not allowed.
- Veronese full-circle ringing: This method of full-circle ringing is similar to English full-circle ring, which uses ropes to enable the bell ringers to manipulate the bells. It is not clear whether hanging the bells in this way was independently developed at San Giorgio or whether the method was imported from England where bells are also hung for full-circle ringing.
- Russian Orthodox bell-ringing: Technically, bells rung in the Russian tradition are sounded exclusively by chiming (i.e., moving only the clapper so that it strikes the side of a stationary bell) and never by swinging the bell. For the Russian tradition, a complex system of ropes is designed individually for each bell tower. All the ropes are gathered at approximately one point, where the bell-ringer (zvonar) stands. Some ropes (the smaller ones) are played by hand, whilst the bigger ropes are played by foot. The major part of the ropes (usually – all ropes) are not actually pulled, but rather pressed. Since one end of every rope is fixed, and the ropes are kept in tension, a press or even a punch on a rope makes a clapper strike the side of its bell. The secrets of this technique have passed from generation to generation, but by the 20th century, this art was almost lost. Training took place only at workshops until 2008 when the first permanent traditional bell-ringing school opened in Moscow under the leadership of Drozdihin Ilya.
- Chiming: Chiming is the art of ringing bells which are “hung dead” or stationary to produce a musical or rhythmic pattern. Unlike full circle ringing or change ringing, which involves swinging the bells through a complete rotation, chiming typically involves stationary or limited motion of the bells. Chiming can be achieved through various mechanisms depending on the type of bells and the desired effect. Common methods include using a clapper to strike the bell’s inside or a hammer to strike the outside. The bells may remain in a fixed position or may have limited movement, such as swinging back and forth on a pivot or being struck by a mechanism that causes them to vibrate. Chiming often involves playing simple melodies or tunes using a set of bells. The bells may be tuned to specific pitches, allowing for harmonies and musical compositions. One of the most familiar forms of chiming is found in clock towers, where the bells are often used to mark the passing of time. Handbells can also be chimed. Handbell choirs or groups may use chiming techniques to create musical arrangements by striking the bells with mallets or by hand. Chiming is a versatile and widely practised form of bell ringing, offering a range of musical and ceremonial possibilities. Whether in clock towers, handbell ensembles, or other settings, chiming provides a unique and melodic expression through the use of bells.
- Change Ringing: Change ringing is a unique and precise art form involving the ringing of a set of tuned bells in a controlled manner to produce intricate and precise variations in their striking sequences, known as “changes.” There are two main methods of change ringing: method ringing and call changes.
In method ringing, ringers memorise the rules for generating each change. They rely on their knowledge and skill to create a series of mathematical sequences rather than following a conventional melody. This method allows for complex patterns and permutations to be achieved. Call changes, on the other hand, involve ringers receiving instructions from a conductor on how to generate each change. The conductor directs the ringers to make specific changes in a coordinated manner, creating a synchronised and harmonious sound. The practice of change ringing originated in the early 17th century with the invention of English full-circle tower bell ringing. By swinging bells through a larger arc than in swing-chiming, ringers gained control over the time between successive strikes of the clapper. This led to the development of full-circle ringing, enabling ringers to independently control the speed of their individual bells and ring various mathematical permutations. Tower bells used in change ringing are substantial in size and weight, requiring skilled manipulation of the ropes by individual ringers. The bells are controlled when they are mouth upwards and moving slowly near the balance point. Due to the limitations in starting and stopping the heavy bells, the rules for generating changes are designed to ensure that each bell strikes once in each change, with its position of striking changing by only one place in successive changes. While change ringing is practised worldwide, it is most prevalent in English churches, where it originated. However, it is also performed on handbells, with each ringer typically holding two bells, and it can be chimed on carillons and chimes of bells. These alternative settings are more commonly used to play conventional melodies. Change ringing is a highly skilled and disciplined art form, requiring precision, coordination, and a deep understanding of the mathematical patterns involved. It continues to be cherished and practised by communities around the world for its unique and captivating sound.
- Small-arc swinging: The swinging of bells through a small arc of movement does not allow the ringer to control the speed of the bell striking. Thus several bells rung together in this way, create an uncoordinated sound as the bells each swing at their own speed dictated by the physics of a simple pendulum. Sometimes the bells are spaced out, and sometimes they strike simultaneously. This randomness also occurs with motorised bells ringing together. This a common method of ringing where full-circle bells do not exist. It requires little skill.
- Ellacombe apparatus: The Ellacombe apparatus is an English mechanism devised for performing change ringing on church bells by striking stationary bells with hammers. It does not produce the same sound as full circle ringing on the same bells due to the absence of the Doppler effect as the bells do not rotate, and the lack of a damping effect from the clapper after each strike. As it requires considerable expertise for one person to ring changes on several bells, it is rarely used for change ringing, and usually a set sequence or a tune is played.
Remembering the Great Bell Foundries of the Past
Until 12th June 2017, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was a business in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, carrying on business at Whitechapel premises. The bell foundry was the oldest manufacturing company in Great Britain and was primarily concerned with manufacturing church bells and their fittings and accessories, although it also provided single-tolling bells, carillon bells and handbells.
After nearly 450 years of bell-making and 250 years at its Whitechapel site, the business cast its final bell and donated it to the Museum of London together with other artefacts used in the manufacturing process, and the iconic building was sold. The foundry was notable for being the original manufacturer of the Liberty Bell, a famous symbol of American independence, and for re-casting Big Ben, which rings from the north clock tower (the Elizabeth Tower) at the Houses of Parliament in London.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry began in 1570. The last premises at 32–34 Whitechapel Road, backing onto Plumbers Row, dates from 1670 and was formerly a coaching inn called “The Artichoke”, which had been damaged in the Great Fire of London. The Artichoke ceased trading in 1738, and the following year the Whitechapel Bell Foundry moved into the premises and remained there until shortly before its closure in 2017.
Church Guidance Note
I came across the Ecclesiastal.com website and noticed a Church Guidance Note on Conditions of Use Applying to Change-Ringing Bells, the first part of which says:
As a general rule, bells should always be left in the ‘down’ position other than for ringing. This is accepted good practice and provides new ringers with practice in ‘ringing up’ and ‘ringing down’. It also reduces corrosion to the clapper bolt caused by moisture collecting in the bells. From a health and safety perspective, it is extremely hazardous for bells to be left ‘up’, particularly if firefighters or others need to enter the tower or if unauthorised persons, including children, interfere with the ropes. Where local circumstances require bells to be left in the ‘up’ position, these notes include guidance to bell ringers in implementing safe practices. The notes indicate a general safe case that should be interpreted to meet each unique local situation and are regularly reviewed with the ‘Central Council of Church Bell Ringers’.
Further details at: https://www.ecclesiastical.com/documents/bell-ringing.pdf
Resources and Connections for Learners
- Handbell Ringers of Great Britain: https://handbells.org.uk/ringing-community
- Sussex County Association of Change Ringers: https://www.scacr.org/learning-training/getting-started/learning-to-ring
- The Surrey Association – Church Bell Ringing: https://www.surreybellringers.org.uk/learn-to-ring/
- Bellringing: St Peter and St Nicholas, Brighton: https://www.escis.org.uk/community-and-social-activities/bellringing-st-peter-and-st-nicholas-brighton/
- Association of Ringing Teachers: https://bellringing.org/learn-to-ring/
- Goring-By-Sea Bell Ringers: https://goringbyseaparish.org/music-groups/bell-ringers/
- u3a Haywards Heath – Handbells: https://www.haywardsheathu3a.org.uk/groups/music/handbells/
- u3a East Grinstead – Handbell Ringers: https://u3asites.org.uk/east-grinstead/page/19493
- u3a Petersfield – Handbell Ringers: https://u3asites.org.uk/petersfield/page/67428
- u3a Orpington – Handbell Ringers: https://www.u3aorpington.org.uk/article-a_celebration_of_hand_bell_ringing_over_23_years.html
- u3a Richmond upon Thames – Churchbell Ringers: https://u3asites.org.uk/richmond-on-thames/page/46501
- Ringing World (Weekly Journal for Church Bell Ringer): https://www.ringingworld.co.uk/submit/article-submission-guidelines/general.html
The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR) was established in 1891 and serves as the representative body for bell ringers in the UK.
Training and Learning:
Bell-ringing requires training and practice to develop the necessary skills and techniques. Many churches and bell-ringing societies offer training programs for beginners. Novices usually start by learning basic techniques, such as handling a bell and ringing in rounds (a sequence where the bells sound in numerical order).
Progression is achieved through learning specific methods, understanding how changes are generated, and practising with other ringers.
Bell-Ringing Associations and Guilds:
Various regional and national bell-ringing associations and guilds exist to support and promote bell-ringing.
These organisations provide resources, training courses, competitions, and social events for bell ringers.
They often maintain records of notable peals and performances and publish journals or newsletters to share information within the bell-ringing community.
Notable Bell Towers and Events:
There are numerous notable bell towers and installations worldwide, each with its own historical and cultural significance. Notable events include competitions, festivals, and special ringing commemorations, such as significant anniversaries or national events.
Each region in Britain has its own bell-ringing traditions, styles, and local methods. Notable regional variations include the Devon Call Changes, Cumberland Youths, Yorkshire Surprise, and Bristol Surprise:
- Devon call-change ringing, also known as Devon-style ringing, is a traditional form of bell ringing practised in Devon. It is a distinct method of change ringing that differs from the more widespread change ringing methods found in other regions. In Devon call-change ringing, the ringers do not follow predetermined sequences of changes as in change ringing methods such as Plain Bob or Grandsire. Instead, the ringing is directed by a “conductor” who calls out specific changes during the ringing. The conductor verbally calls out instructions for the ringers to change the order in which they strike the bells. These calls indicate which bells should change position and in what order, allowing for a fluid and responsive style of ringing. Devon call-change ringing is known for its simplicity and accessibility compared to more complex change-ringing methods. It often involves fewer bells and simpler patterns, making it easier for beginners to participate and learn. It is valued for its traditional nature and the sense of community and camaraderie it fosters among the ringers. Devon call-change ringing is often performed in local church towers and community settings. It is associated with a relaxed and informal atmosphere, with ringers frequently gathering to socialise and enjoying the ringing as a shared experience. Devon call-change ringing represents a distinctive regional variation of bell ringing, emphasising oral calls and a more flexible approach to changing bell orders. It is appreciated for its inclusive nature, allowing ringers of different skill levels to participate and enjoy the art of bell ringing.
- Cumberland Youths is a specific method or style of change ringing in the context of bell-ringing. It has historical significance within the tradition of English-style change ringing and involves a sequence of changes in which each bell changes position one place at a time, following a distinct set of rules. As with other change-ringing methods, Cumberland Youths is defined by a system of notation called “place notation.” The place notation describes the order in which the bells change position in each successive change. Cumberland Youths is a notable and historically significant method that originated in the county of Cumberland, now part of Cumbria, northwest England. It has been rung for several centuries and is considered part of the heritage and tradition of bell ringing in that region. It is known for its complexity, requiring ringers to navigate intricate patterns and changes. It is often regarded as an advanced method that challenges the skills and coordination of experienced ringers.
- Yorkshire Surprise is another specific method or style of change ringing within the realm of bell-ringing. A popular and well-known method with origins in Yorkshire, it is a complex change ringing method that follows a specific pattern of changes where the bells move in non-consecutive order, creating a distinct musical pattern. Like other change ringing methods, Yorkshire Surprise is defined by a place notation, which describes the order in which the bells change position in each successive change. The place notation for Yorkshire Surprise is specific to this method and different from other methods. Yorkshire Surprise is recognised for its characteristic features, including the use of “lead-end bobs” and “single bobs.” These terms refer to specific points in the method where the ringing pattern is altered, adding complexity and variety to the ringing. The method is a well-regarded and widely practised method in the bell ringing community. It is popular for its challenging and musically pleasing characteristics, attracting experienced ringers seeking intricate and engaging ringing experiences.
- Bristol Surprise is a specific method or style of change ringing within the realm of bell ringing. It is a highly regarded and challenging method known for its complexity and musicality. Bristol Surprise involves a complex sequence of changes where the bells move in a non-consecutive order, creating intricate musical patterns. Like other change ringing methods, Bristol Surprise is defined by a place notation, which describes the order in which the bells change position in each successive change. The place notation for Bristol Surprise is specific to this method and different from other methods. It is recognised for its unique and challenging features. It often includes long, continuous runs of bells in the same order, which adds to its complexity and demands high levels of skill and precision from the ringers. It is known for producing pleasing and harmonious sounds when rung correctly, showcasing the artistry and musical potential of change ringing.
Advanced Techniques in Bell-Ringing
- Surprise Major: This is a complex change ringing method that involves seven bells and is considered a significant milestone for ringers to master.
- Royal, Maximus, and Cinques: These are advanced stages of change ringing, requiring high levels of skill, concentration, and coordination due to the increased number of bells and complex patterns.
Number of Bells and Bell-Ringers
There are thousands of bells installed in towers across Britain, with estimates ranging from around 5,000 to 7,000 towers. The number of bell ringers can vary, but it is estimated that there are tens of thousands of active bell ringers in the UK. The number of bells in a tower can range from a single bell up to a maximum of 24 bells in a tower, with six or eight bells being common in many parish churches.
Largest and Smallest Bells
The largest bell in Britain is the tenor bell at Liverpool Cathedral, known as “Great George”, weighing in at approximately 14.5 tons (14,730 kilograms).
The smallest working bell in Britain is known as “The Little John” and is located at St. John’s Church in Preston, Lancashire. It weighs only 0.26 pounds (120 grams).
Most Unusual Bells
Perhaps the most bells in Britain are at Bath Abbey. Their bells are hung in a descending scale, in an anti-clockwise direction; a curious phenomenon shared with just a handful of churches in the country. The smallest bell, known as the Treble, weighs just under six cwt (1/4 of a ton), while the largest, known as the Tenor, weighs over 33 cwt (1.5 tons), a mere lightweight when compared with the tenor of St Paul’s Cathedral at over 62 cwt (3 tons).
Picture Credit: “One of the four quarter bells in the Bellfry – Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower” by UK Parliament is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
Big Ben, located in the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster, is famously known for its distinctive chimes. However, it is not typically rung by hand as part of bell-ringing traditions.
The Lloyd’s Building in London houses the Lutine Bell, which was salvaged from a shipwreck and is rung on ceremonial occasions at the insurance market.
Picture Credit: Internal shot of Rostrum at Lloyd’s and the Lutine Bell.
Attribution: Lloyd’s of London, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lloyd%27s_building_Lutine_Bell.jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.
Picture Credit: Parts of a bell: 1. yoke, 2. crown, 3. head, 4. shoulder, 5. waist, 6. sound ring, 7. lip, 8. mouth, 9. clapper, 10. bead line.
Attribution: Parts_of_a_Bell.jpg: derivative work: Malyszkz, CC BY 1.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Parts_of_a_Bell.svg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 1.0 Generic license.
An Introduction to Handbells
Quite simply, a handbell is a bell that is rung by hand. To ring a handbell, a person holds onto its flexible handle and moves their arm to make the clapper inside the bell strike its walls. Handbells can be used to get attention or gather people together, and they are often found in sets with different pitches.
The Cor Brothers
The history of handbells dates back a long time. The credit for developing the modern handbell goes to the Cor brothers, Robert and William, who lived in Aldbourne, Wiltshire, England, between 1696 and 1724. Initially, they made bells for hame boxes but later refined them for more precise tuning and added hinged clappers that moved in a single plane. In 1784, the foundry in Loughborough, Leicestershire, became John Taylor & Co, continuing the tradition of bell-making.
Originally, sets of tuned handbells, like the ones created by the Cor brothers, were used by change ringers for practising outside of their bell towers. The intricate patterns and algorithms of change ringing often required extensive practice, which could disturb neighbours. Handbells provided a solution, allowing ringers to continue their practice without annoying anyone. It was also more enjoyable for the ringers to practice in the warmth of a local pub rather than in a cold tower during winter. The handbell sets used by change ringers typically had the same number of bells as the bells in their towers, usually ranging from six to twelve, and were tuned to a diatonic scale.
In 1902, Margaret Shurcliff brought handbells from England to the United States. She received a set of ten handbells in London as a gift from Arthur Hughes, the general manager of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This gift was given to her after completing two two-and-a-half-hour change-ringing peals in a single day.
A Rich History and Contemporary Manufacturers
Handbells have a long and storied history, and they continue to captivate enthusiasts today. They are distinct from tower bells in terms of size, purpose, and playing technique. While tower bells are large and stationary, handbells are smaller, handheld instruments that produce a charming and delicate sound.
Four main manufacturers are renowned for crafting handbells, each with its own unique characteristics:
- Whitechapel Handbells: Despite the name, Whitechapel Handbells are no longer produced in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London. Instead, they are now manufactured at a foundry located in Dartford, Kent. Whitechapel Handbells maintain a tradition of excellence and offer a range of handbells for musicians and collectors alike.
- Taylors: Known for their tower bells, Taylors in Loughborough also crafts high-quality handbells. Their handbells complement their renowned tower bells, allowing enthusiasts to experience the beauty of both instrument types. The business is the world’s largest working bell foundry.
- Malmark: A prominent American manufacturer, Malmark handbells possess a distinct internal mechanism that sets them apart from their English counterparts. With precision craftsmanship and a wide range of options, Malmark handbells have earned a dedicated following among musicians worldwide.
- Schulmerich Bells: Another American manufacturer, Schulmerich Bells, produces handbells in the American style. Their handbells exhibit exceptional craftsmanship and offer a unique sound, contributing to the diversity of handbell music.
In the United Kingdom, there is a distinction between “American handbells” and “English handbells”:
- English handbells are traditional, with leather clapper heads and handles (such as the bells that Whitechapel make).
- American handbells use modern materials, such as plastic and rubber, to produce the same effect (such as those produced by Malmark and Schulmerich). In America, however, they are all called English handbells.
It’s worth noting that ‘Bells of Whitechapel’ serves as a distributor for both Whitechapel Handbells and American ‘Malmark’ bells in the UK. This adds an interesting dynamic to the handbell market, providing enthusiasts various options from different manufacturers and styles.
Music for Handbells
Historically, handbells have been closely associated with church services, and their usage outside of religious settings has been relatively limited. As a result, most musical pieces written for handbells tend to be shorter in duration, typically around four minutes or less. While there has been some expansion in the repertoire and increased interest in handbells beyond church services in recent years, the prevalence of shorter compositions remains a common characteristic of handbell music. This is partly due to the technical limitations and physical demands of playing handbells. However, there are exceptions where composers and arrangers have written longer and more intricate music specifically for handbells. Handbells may be combined with other instruments in these cases to create more expansive and complex musical arrangements.
A few examples of longer and more intricate music specifically composed or arranged for handbells, showcasing the range and versatility of the instrument beyond shorter church service pieces, are listed below:
- “The Music of the Spheres” by Kevin McChesney: This is a notable work for handbells that lasts around 12 minutes and features complex and intricate musical patterns.
- “Morpheus” by Sondra K. Tucker: This composition for handbells is approximately nine minutes long and showcases a captivating blend of melodic lines and rhythmic variations.
- “Echoes from the English Cathedral“, composed by the late Cynthia Dobrinski: This piece is a medley of well-known hymn tunes arranged for handbells and can span around 15 minutes, incorporating various musical styles and techniques.
- “The Passing of the Year” by Bob Chilcott: This is a substantial work for handbells and choir that lasts approximately 20 minutes. It is a multi-movement composition featuring intricate handbell passages and vocal parts.
- “Symphonic Suite for Bells” by William A. Payn: This is a significant piece that explores the full range and capabilities of handbells. It consists of multiple movements and can last around 15 to 20 minutes.
- “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” by Philip Wilby: This composition for handbells is based on the famous theme by Niccolò Paganini and features a series of variations. It is a challenging and engaging piece that showcases the musical versatility of handbells, lasting around 10 to 12 minutes.
Handbell Ringing Techniques
Handbell ringing techniques involve the movement of the bell to produce sound. Typically, the ringer holds the bell against their shoulder, with the bell facing upwards, and swings it in an elliptical shape to make the clapper strike the inside of the bell. The bell’s tone resonates and naturally fades until it stops completely, or the ringer can dampen the sound by using their hand, body, or a padded surface to stop the vibrations.
Handbell ringing techniques have evolved over time. The late Donald Allured, founding director of the Westminster Concert Bell Choir, is credited with developing an American off-the-table style of ringing. This style includes various non-ringing sound effects, such as plucking the clapper with the bell placed on a table. Allured also emphasised precise damping or stopping of the sound by touching the bell to a soft surface, aiming for more musical results.
In addition to traditional ringing techniques, there are multiple-bell techniques that allow ringers to handle more than two bells simultaneously or in quick succession. This technique, known as “four-in-hand,” is used when a particular piece requires more bells than can be held in two hands. There are also various techniques that can alter the sound of the bell while it is being rung, adding further versatility to the performance.
Picture Credit: Two English handbells, manufactured by Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
Attribution: User Oosoom on en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Handbells_Whitechapel.jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (“Registered Charity number 270036”) has issued a detailed Glossary of Bell-Ringing Terms – it includes many of the more commonly used terms in bell restoration work and is presented alphabetically.
- Back bells: the heavier bells (so tend to limit the speed). +
- Back: at or near last place in a change. +
- Backstroke (or Backstroke home): The part of a bell’s cycle started by pulling on the tail end (rope end) in the tower or with the bells raised in hand; also: the position at which the back bells come into rounds order at backstroke. +
- Baldrick: the leather-lined metal strap from which the clappers used to be hung.
- Band: a group of ringers for a given set of bells (or for a special purpose, e.g., a “real band”)
- Bearings: the load-bearing assembly on which the headstock (and so the whole bell) turns about its gudgeon pins. Modern hanging means the bell is hung on ball bearings, but were traditionally plain bearings. +
- Belfry: The room in the tower where the bells are hung is sometimes called the Bell Chamber. It can also be used to mean the whole tower.
- Bell Tower: The structure or tower that houses the bells.
- Bellframe: The framework or support structure that holds the bells.
- Bob caller: someone who calls a touch, but does not check the ringing as a conductor would.
- Bob: the commonest type of call in most methods or a class of plain method (in which either dodging takes place or some bells are not just hunting or place-making); also can mean (usually called the “Bob place”) the appropriate point in the method (e.g. a lead end) to modify the sequence of changes. +
- Bristol start: starting to raise in peal by adding an extra bell each time. +
- Bump the stay: allow the bell to swing over the balance, out of control, so the stay pushes the slider to its limit, stopping the bell. +
- Cambridge: The right place surprise method, one of the standard eight, that is often the first learned.
- Cannons: Loops cast onto the top of older bells when they were made, through which metal straps passed, attaching the bell to the headstock. Modern bells are flat-topped, drilled and bolted to their headstocks. Cannons have been cut off some bells which have then been drilled and bolted with either a wooden or cast resin pad between bell and headstock.+
- Change Ringing Methods: These are predefined sequences of bell changes that are rung. Each method has specific rules governing the order of the changes.
- Cinques: these are methods for working eleven bells (possibly with a twelfth covering) the name deriving from the practice of swapping five pairs of bells. +
- Clapper: the metal (usually cast iron) rod/hammer hung from a pivot below the crown of the bell that strikes the sound bow of the bell when the bell stops moving. +
- Clocking: causing a bell to sound while down by pulling a hammer against it (as a clock would) or by pulling the clapper against the side of the bell. +
- Closed leads (also called cartwheeling): handstroke changes follow backstroke changes with no handstroke gap (unlike open leads). +
- Come round: return to rounds to end a touch (e.g. “come round at handstroke), or produce rounds prematurely. +
- Cover: a bell (e.g. tenor) ringing at the end of every row, while the other bells ring a method. +
- Delight: A treble bob method in which an internal place is made sometimes, but not every time, the treble goes from one dodge to another (“cross sections“). +
- Dodge: Changing direction for one stroke in bell ringing (although strictly a dodge is taking a retrograde step in the middle of a portion of hunting). Dodging practice is an exercise where two bells exchange places on every stroke, sometimes taught to aid learners change from call changes to plain hunt. +
- Double method: a method where the structure is the same if reversed. +
- Doubles: a method with five working bells, possibly with a sixth covering. +
- Down: EITHER: when the bells are hanging with the mouth lowermost position, OR: moving towards the front (as in “hunting down”). +
- Extent: a touch where all possible changes are rung exactly once each; the number of such different rows is N factorial, where N is the number of bells. +
- Fire out: to ring haphazardly, either because ringers accidentally try to ring at once or deliberately for wedding ringing. +
- Firing: From rounds, all the bells are rung at once for a few strokes before returning to rounds. Done at special occasions such as weddings or New Year. +
- Front bells: the smaller bells which are rung first in rounds. +
- Front: at or near the start of a row. +
- Full circle ringing: This describes the method of ringing bells in a complete 360-degree rotation instead of swing-chiming or stationary-chiming.
- Garter hole: the hole in the wheel where the rope passes through. +
- Handstroke: the stroke when the sally is gripped. +
- Headstocks: Cannons have been cut off some bells, which have then been drilled and bolted with either a wooden or cast resin pad between the bell and headstock.*
- Hunt: Move one place at a time up or down (see plain hunt, treble). +
- Lead end: the change on which the treble is leading (ringing first) at its backstroke. +
- Little Bob: a method in which the treble plain hunts between lead and fourths place. +Line: the sequence of places a bell rings in a method, or the diagram describing the method (the convention being that the treble line is shown in red while the others are blue). +
- Method Ringing: Ringing a number of bells in a predetermined sequence to a rhythmic beat.*
- Method: an agreed/named sequence of changes that forms a round block, see Plain Course. +
- Muffling: For memorial services such as funerals, memorial services and Remembrance Sunday, the bells are rung half-muffled with a leather pad on one side of the clapper. Very rarely fully muffled with pads on both sides. +
- Peal: A lengthy performance of change ringing, typically lasting over three hours, with no repetitions.
- Plain Bob, Grandsire, and Stedman: These are popular change-ringing methods with distinct patterns and sequences of changes.
- Plain Course: This refers to a continuous sequence of changes in which each bell sounds in a different position within the order of bells. It is a fundamental unit of change ringing, forming the building blocks for more complex methods. A plain course is a complete cycle of changes, where each bell moves one position at a time in a predetermined sequence. The order in which the bells change is typically determined by a specific method being rung.
- Plain Hunt: A basic change ringing method where the bells swap positions in a simple pattern.
- Sally: the woollen bulge woven into the rope. It is both an indicator and a help with gripping. +
- Slider: A device which allows the bell to go over the balance at each end of its swing, but not to over-rotate. +
- Stay: A device that is attached to the headstock and works in conjunction with the slider. +
- Tenor: the lowest-pitched bell in the tower. +
- Treble: the highest-pitched bell in the tower. +
- Up: EITHER: when the bells are raised to the mouth uppermost position, OR: moving towards the back (as in “hunting up”). +
- Wheel: The mechanism that allows the bell to rotate during ringing.
Note: A definition marked * means it has come from the CCDBR glossary mentioned above. A definition marked + means it has come from a glossary on Wikipedia. Whilst the glossary is comprehensive, there may be additional items that could be included.
There are also several abbreviations and notations used exclusively or almost exclusively in handbell music:
- LV (“laissez vibrer” or “let vibrate”, similar to a piano’s sustain pedal).
- R (“ring”, regular ringing or meaning to end the LV).
- SK (“shake”, i.e. shaking the bell continuously during the note’s duration).
- TD (“thumb damp”, ringing the bell with a thumb on the casting to create a staccato note).
- PL (“pluck”, which means to throw down the clapper while the bell lies on the table).
- ▼ (“martellato“, to strike bell against the padding of the table, pushing the casting firmly against padding to quickly dampen sound).
- SW (“swing”, to play the bell in a normal position, swing it down to the waist, then bring it back up).
- BD (“brush damp”, brushing the rim of the bell against the ringer’s chest to cause a quick diminuendo)
This technique may be used when a soft ring follows a loud ring with the same handbell(s). The effect simulates a forte piano.
- ↑ or ↪ (“echo”, ringing the bell and then touching it very briefly to the table, creating an echo effect).
- ⨥ (“mallet with handbell on the table”, to use mallets to strike the casting of the bell on the table, creating a staccato effect).
- + (“mallet on suspended handbell” to hold the bell upright and strike the casting with a mallet, creating the same sound as a normal ring albeit a softer strike).
Picture Credit: Circa 13th Century BC Bell, Shang Dynasty.
Attribution: Gary Todd, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:13th-12th_Cent._BC_Shang_Bronze_Bell.jpg
This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
Sources and Further Reading
- The Craft of Bellringing, at: https://youtu.be/yLMiK-TMyPI
- Change Ringing – Discover Bell-Ringing – BellRinging.org, at: https://youtu.be/C-g27o0G0H4
- Church Bell-Ringers Rope in Recruits, at: https://youtu.be/S5zZMfD34wg
- Bell-Ringing: It’s Harder Than It Looks, at: https://youtu.be/4IJGSdn6KNk
- The History of Bell Ringing, at: https://youtu.be/WXCMglivkBY
- Bells & Bellfounding: A History, Church Bells, Carillons, John Taylor & Co., Bellfounders, Loughborough, England Paperback, by Michael J. Milsom (Author) 13 Nov. 2017, published by Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bells-Bellfounding-Carillons-Bellfounders-Loughborough/dp/1547239158/
- Bells and Bellringing: 802 (Shire Library), Paperback, by John Harrison (Author) 24 Mar. 2016, published by Shire Publications, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bells-Bellringing-Shire-Library-Harrison/dp/0747814333/
- First Steps to Bell-Ringing: Being an Introduction to the Healthful and Pleasant Exercise of Bell-Ringing in Rounds and Changes, Upon Church Bells (Classic Reprint), Paperback, by Samuel B. Goslin (Author) 24 Aug. 2018, published by Forgotten Books, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/First-Steps-Bell-Ringing-Introduction/dp/1332226337/
- Ringing Church Bells, Paperback, by Albert John Peebles (Author) 21 Jan. 2018, Independently published, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/RINGING-CHURCH-BELLS-ALBERT-PEEBLES/dp/1976963818/
- Bell-Ringing: The English Art of Change-Ringing, Hardcover, by R. J. Johnston (Contributor) 29 May 1986, published by Viking, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bell-Ringing-English-Change-Ringing-R-J-Johnston/dp/0670801763/
- Ringing for Gold: Hand-bell Ringing, the Living Tradition, Hardcover, by Peter Fawcett (Author), Philip Bedford (Editor), Bruce Baillie (Illustrator, Designer) – 27 July 2012, published by Bedford Family Ringers (UK), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ringing-Gold-Hand-bell-Living-Tradition/dp/0953829065/
- Change-Ringing on Handbells: Volume 1: Basic Techniques, Paperback, by Tina Stoecklin (Author), Simon Gay (Author) 2 April 2020, Independently published, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Change-Ringing-Handbells-1-Basic-Techniques/dp/B086PTFL97/
- Change-Ringing on Handbells: Volume 2: Advanced Techniques, Paperback, by Tina Stoecklin (Author), Simon Gay (Author) 12 Aug. 2022, Independently published, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Change-Ringing-Handbells-2-Advanced-Techniques/dp/B0B92D3DT4/
- Handbell Ringers Bible (English Handbells), Paperback, by D. Rod Lloyd (Author) 24 Feb. 2012, published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Handbell-Ringers-Bible-Rod-Lloyd/dp/1470136325/
- Musical Handbells: A Comprehensive History of the Bells and Their Founders, Hardcover, by William Butler (Author) 29 Sept. 2000, published by Phillimore & Co. Ltd, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Musical-Handbells-Comprehensive-History-Founders/dp/1860771181/
CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.
End Notes and Explanations
- Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: bing.com [chat] and https://chat.openai.com ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell ↑
- Source: bell, n., Oxford English Dictionary (1st ed.), Oxford: University Press, 1887. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell ↑
- Source: Haweis 1878, p. 536.Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell ↑
- Source: von Falkenhausen 1994, p. 132. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell ↑
- Source: Huang 2002, pp. 20–27. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell ↑
- Source: von Falkenhausen 1994, p. 134. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell ↑
- Source: Rostoker, Bronson & Dvorak 1984, p. 750. “The Cast-Iron Bells of China”. Technology and Culture. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 25 (4): 750. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell ↑
- Source: Mostly from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell-ringer ↑
- Source: Russia. The TV channel “Culture”. The school bell ringers opens in Moscow”. Tvkultura.ru. 15th October 2008. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell-ringer ↑
- Source: The Gentle Author. “So Long, Whitechapel Bell Foundry”. Spitalfields Life. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitechapel_Bell_Foundry
Source: “UK’s oldest manufacturing company has cast its final tower bells at its Whitechapel Road site”. Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitechapel_Bell_Foundry ↑
- Source: Enfield, Laura. “Silence falls at Whitechapel Bell Foundry”. The Wharf. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitechapel_Bell_Foundry ↑
- Sources:  Farrell, Sean (2 December 2016). “Whitechapel Bell Foundry to ring in new era as owner sells site”. Guardian, and  “So Long, Whitechapel Bell Foundry”. Spitalfields Life. 2 December 2016. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitechapel_Bell_Foundry ↑
- Source: Harley, Nicola. “Bell tolls for world’s oldest foundry”. Telegraph. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitechapel_Bell_Foundry ↑
- Source: https://www.bathabbey.org/worship-and-music/bell-ringing/ ↑
- Explanation: Lutine was a frigate which served in both the French Navy and the Royal Navy. She was launched by the French in 1779. The ship passed to British control in 1793 and was taken into service as HMS Lutine. She sank among the West Frisian Islands during a storm in 1799. The ship was built as a French Magicienne-class frigate with 32 guns and was launched at Toulon in 1779. During the French Revolution, Lutine came under French Royalist control. On 18 December 1793, she was one of sixteen ships handed over to a British fleet at the end of the Siege of Toulon, to prevent her being captured by the French Republicans. In 1795, she was rebuilt by the British as a fifth-rate frigate with 38 guns. She served thereafter in the North Sea, where she was part of the blockade of Amsterdam. Lutine sank during a storm at Vlieland in the West Frisian Islands on 9 October 1799, whilst carrying a large shipment of gold. Shifting sandbanks disrupted salvage attempts, and the majority of the cargo has never been recovered. Lloyd’s of London has preserved her salvaged bell – the Lutine Bell – which is now used for ceremonial purposes at their headquarters in London. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Lutine_(1779) ↑
- Explanation: Hame boxes are wooden or metal containers that were traditionally used to store and transport harnesses for horses. A harness is a set of straps and fittings that are placed on a horse to attach it to a vehicle or implement. The hame box specifically refers to the part of the harness that holds the hames, which are curved metal or wooden pieces that go around the neck of a horse to distribute the weight of the load being pulled. The hame box serves as a protective case or storage compartment for the hames and other harness components when not in use. ↑
- Explanation: Hinged clappers are components found in bells that allow them to produce sound when struck. A clapper is a movable piece typically made of metal that hangs inside the bell and swings back and forth. It is attached to the bell by a hinge, allowing it to pivot freely. When the bell is struck or moved, the hinged clapper swings against the inside surface of the bell, producing the characteristic ringing sound. The hinge mechanism enables the clapper to move in a single plane, ensuring consistent striking of the bell and creating a clear and resonant tone. Hinged clappers are commonly used in various types of bells, including handbells, tower bells, and church bells. ↑
- Source: Collins, Irma H. (2013-10-18). Dictionary of Music Education. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-8652-0. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handbell ↑
- Source: Bell Restoration Committee, Issued: 1 July 2013 Guidance Note GN.3 Page 1 of 6, at: https://cccbr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/GN3-glossary-2013.pdf ↑
- Source: Change ringing glossary at: https://jaharrison.me.uk/Ringing/Glossary/B.html ↑
- Sources:  “Handbell Notation Symbols & Definitions”. Handbell World, and  http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~kingsbur/articulations.html