The bells of the towers used by bellringers (sometimes called Campinologists) produce no recognizable tunes. Yet they are rung in sequences as disciplined and orderly as any music. These bells, rung today in a method known since 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 (yes electronic bells do exist for church towers). Change ringing depends on real bells, each swung in a complete circle by a single person. You've guessed it: six people for six bells, eight people for eight bells, the ringers usually standing in a circle.
A Bell in Her Usual Position
f. Groove of Wheel
h. Ball of Clapper
i. Flight of Clapper
l. Timber of Cage
n. Lip of Bell
Bells for change ringing are hung in sturdy frames that allow the bell to swing through 360 degrees. The bell is usually bronze and ranges in weight from a few hundred pounds to several tons. A ring of bells consists of four to twelve bells. Each bell is attached to a wooden wheel with a handmade rope running around it. The mechanism is so precise that the balance of the bell allows young or old, large or small, even the unfit to ring. With a little practice anyone can control the largest bell easily (even so, please do not underestimate the skill of accomplished ringers! Also, the unfit become remarkably fitter!). 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", which marks where the ringer must catch 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.
To hear bells ringing changes click on the bell
To see a video clip of bellringers ringing changes click on the bell (needs Realplayer).
The ScienceBecause of their great momentum, bells take about two seconds to rotate, so 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 the order from the lightest, highest pitched bell to the heaviest and lowest pitched, the bells strike in a sequence known as rounds, which ringers denote by a row of numbers:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 To hear eight bells ringing rounds, click on the bell.
To produce pleasing variations in the sound, bells are made to change places with adjacent bells in the row, for example:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
2 1 4 3 6 5 8 7
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.
The MusicNo amount of explanation of change ringing - or its pleasures - can substitute for listening to and ringing bells. However, the following may help us to enjoy change ringing by explaining what we should 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. 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. Usually 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.
In order to ring a different row with each pull of the rope, ringers have devised methods that is to say, orderly systems, of changing pairs. In ringing a method the bells begin in rounds, ring changes according to the method, 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.
Plain Hunt Minimus
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!
Experienced ringers test and extend their abilities by ringing peals: 5,000 or more changes without breaks or repeating a row. Peals usually last about three hours. The first peal was rung in England in 1715. The first peal in North America was rung in 1850.
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. In North America, with towers few and far between, most change ringing is done on hand 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.
The British brought change ringing to many places, the American colonies, installing bells in Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia in the eighteenth century. Paul Revere joined the band of ringers at Old North Church in 1750 when he was fifteen years old. His familiarity with the tower and his association with its keeper enabled him to use the tower for the lantern signals that directed his famous midnight ride. After the Revolution change ringing began to die out in the United States. Throughout the nineteenth century new rings were installed in America at scattered locations, but interest waned. A weak revival occurred around 1900 with several additional new rings. By mid-20th century only a few towers had active change ringing bands. Two new rings in Canada in the 1950s and the 10-bell ring at Washington Cathedral in 1964 sparked a revival that continues to gather momentum. There are 40 operable rings in North America today, most associated with churches. Over half have been installed since 1960, and still more are being planned. There are over 400 ringers in North America.
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 socializing.
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 one of the links on this site, go to a practice session and join in!