Bells, Bell Ringing and Change Ringing

Bells have been an integral part of church life for hundreds of years. Bells as we recognise them today, as distinct from riveted cowbells, gongs, hemispherical and tubular bells and the like, have been known of since the Bronze Age. There are examples from the time of the Roman occupation of our Isles and earlier. These were hand bells and it was not until the 7th century that large bells were cast. The earliest examples of large bells still extant date from the 12th century when, after a short evolutionary process, the typical profile and proportions were established. These, with minor alterations are still being used today.  

The material has always been a bronze alloy of tin and copper with approximate composition 1: 4: Sn:Cu. Modern proportions are 22% tin and 78% copper, this proportion varying either way by up to 2% for very large or very small bells. Above 25% tin, the material becomes vitreous and is very hard. The bell thickness, which might be in the order of ½ inch increases to several inches near the lip of the bell. Most of the mass of the bell will be concentrated here, and this part of the bell is called the sound-bow. It is from here, in the main, that the rich bell-sound emanates. More than twelve distinct frequencies have been identified in the “sound” of a bell and from the late nineteenth century, all bells were tuned, via the machining of the inside surface of the bell, so that the principal five notes are in harmony with each other. Some partial tones emanate from the sides of the bell.
The bell is cast in a two-part mould; a “core” shaping the inner surface of the bell, and a “cope”, that may carry decorations and inscriptions in the negative, shaping the outer surface of the bell. The core and cope are built on iron or brick “armatures” from a special moulding “loam”, smoothed and baked in an oven before use. The metallurgy of the bronze is very complex and the cast structure will be heavily cored (non-uniform crystal composition) & this is exacerbated to some degree by very slow cooling, the bell mould being buried in a pit of sand before casting. These methods dating from medieval times are still in use today by the two major UK bell foundries.

It was realised very early on that the bell needed to be struck by a swinging clapper in order to achieve the rich and powerful tones we all know today, rather than being struck by a hammer or mallet. The bell would have a centrally- hinged clapper and be mounted on a headstock so that it could swing on bearings. It would be chimed via a lever attached to the headstock and a rope falling to the church floor. Most churches originally rang their bells in this fashion and in many countries this is still the practice today, but in England, the bells were gradually swung higher and higher, the levers to which bell ropes were attached being supplanted first by half-wheels and eventually by whole wheels, so that by the 17th century, sets or “rings” of bells, tuned to a musical scale were to be found in many towers. With the advent of the stay and slider, the bells were capable of being rung in an orderly fashion by swinging through 360o from an inverted position. Rung in this controlled way, the typical speed of the clapper could reach 600 mph and the full voice of each bell is heard.

No longer was it necessary to ring sets of bells in what was no more than a cacophony of noise! There was, however, a drawback with this kind of arrangement; the time between consecutive blows on the same bell was in the order of 1 ½ to 3 seconds so it was not possible for example to strike coherent “chords” with sets of bells nor to play melodies or anything approaching the likes of conventional music. Further, when sets of bells were rung in order down the scale for example, usually called “rounds”, the typical interval between consecutive notes is in the order of 0.2 – 0.25 seconds and altering this spacing substantially takes great physical effort and is not sustainable for any but short periods of time. It was mainly because of these limitations that the otherwise peculiar “music” of change ringing developed – and this musical form is unique to bells rung in this fashion.

When a bell hung for full-circle ringing is at rest, the rope runs past a ground pulley and winds itself over the wheel for a length of approximately 1/8th of the wheel circumference (c). On applying successive synchronized pulls to the rope the bell swings higher & higher and is gradually raised until, in its highest position it will be facing vertically upwards. Via the stay & slider it may be stopped and kept or stood in that position. The raising of a bell can be likened to a garden swing where successive synchronized pushes raise the swing higher and higher – but not as far as to overturn it! When the bell is in this upturned position the rope runs round the wheel a length of 1/8th (c) but now the rope runs over the ground pulley and under the wheel. A bell in this position called “set at handstroke” has the rope falling in an identical manner to when the bell is at rest & great care must be taken to establish whether the bell is “down” (and safe) or set at handstroke ie. “up” and ready to ring.
By pulling the rope in an appropriate fashion the bell will swing from its upright position through an arc of 360o and, facing upwards again be re-set this time at “backstroke”. Here the rope runs past the ground pulley and winds itself a length 5/8th (c) over the wheel so that the tail of the rope in the ringing room will be, perhaps some 7ft above the floor. On pulling the rope again – the “backstroke” – the bell is returned to its original ringing position. These two strokes, causing the bell to strike twice & thus giving the epitomic “ding – dong” sound are called a whole pull. The mechanics of the handstroke and backstroke action are similar for the bell but there are differences from the ringer’s standpoint. At handstroke the rope is necessarily pulled up by the bell as it rotates so that, together with friction as the rope runs through pulleys and guides there is a net energy loss from the bell and as a result, unless the rope is pulled a little harder the bell will not rise so high, and will swing back again giving a shorter period.  At backstroke the weight of the rope aids the action and there is a net gain of energy by the bell. The bell will swing higher & the period is lengthened. Because of the way in which bells are rung together these differences actually help the ringing action. Of course there is also an energy loss from bell-bearing friction & windage but this is small and the same for both strokes of the bell and is easily accommodated by the ringer.

When ringing rounds, the sound produced is a continuous series of notes with the exception that there is a slight pause before the handstroke blows, this being helped by the effects of the rope as described above. This might be the equivalent of a single blow, sometimes less. The result is that writing-out the “notes” as they sound might appear (on 6 bells for example) as

123456123456 123456123456 123 etc.

That is, ringing is shown in whole-pulls punctuated by slight pauses shown by the gaps.
Normally the order of bells is not written as a continuous line but as a column, and further, the pause between whole-pulls, whilst still made is not shown. The above therefore will normally be written as:

123 etc.

Ringing in “rounds” would undoubtedly have been the norm in the early days, perhaps early 17th century. For variety, the order was altered, at first by command (of the conductor) and later evolving to automatic systems and thus giving birth to the science & art of change ringing. In change ringing it is the order in which the bells sound that changes; the bells do not change/move in the belfry nor do the ringers change/move in the ringing room. By controlling the bell to ring either faster (& so sounding earlier) or slower (& so sounding later) at the cost of a certain physical effort, changes in the order of the bells sounding may be affected. It is generally unsustainable to change the position in which a bell strikes by anything but one place at a time for more than short ringing sessions and it was one of the early decisions of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR – the international governing body of change ringing) that such “movement” be limited to one place. This means that any bell may, the next time it sounds, do so one place earlier, one place later, or in the same place. This ruling gave rise to the birth of the “method”. This is a set of changes rung to a certain & defined “formula” much as the musician plays his noted as defined by the composer’s “formula” or music.
Nowadays one of the simplest forms of change ringing is “plain hunt” evolving readily to “Plain Bob”. The formula for plain hunt is; change all odd pairs of bells (12, 34. etc) – change all even pairs of bells (23,45 etc) – repeat the whole a sufficient number of times until rounds (the starting row) is reached. These numbers referring to the bell positions & not the actual bells. So that on six bells, for example we get: -


If this is repeated 5 more time we will have rung 12 rows or changes and will have returned to rounds – 123456. If, however we introduce a further rule, namely “that when bell no 1 leads (rings first), then the bell in 2nd place remains in 2nd place so that bells in 34 and 56 must swap. The above numbers therefore continue as;

132546    Applying the second rule gives:

This is “Plain Bob” and what is shown is a “lead” of the method; repeating the formula will make five leads and this will run to 60 rows or changes. By changing the second rule into a third rule or even fourth rule, at the command of the conductor at certain positions, in a pre-determined way – bearing in mind that the repetition of any row is forbidden - the length of the performance may be extended to the maximum possible number of changes, called the “extent”, which, on six bells is 720 changes. It will be noticed in this example of Plain Bob that bell No 1(the “treble”) returns to its original position after 12 changes. This kind of method is referred to as “treble-dominated”. All of the other five bells are referred to as “working bells”. The vast majority of methods are treble-dominated. The exceptions, strictly speaking, are called “principles” and not methods.
The number of methods that can be rung on six bells runs to about 3000 so that the repertoire can be regarded as inexhaustible. On 7 and more bells – up to twelve – sometimes 14 or even 16 bells, the possibilities can be regarded as infinite.  Thus a bell-ringer of 50 years experience for example might still, in his twilight years be busy learning new methods to practice his art.

A peal is a ringing performance involving 5000+ (unique) changes, starting and ending in rounds, typically taking about 3 hours or more to ring. On seven or fewer bells this is defined as a whole number of “extents”, one for “Triples” – seven bells (5040 changes), seven for “Minor” – six bells (5040 changes), 42 for “Doubles” – five bells (5040 changes) and 210 or 209 for “Minimus” – four bells (5040 or 5016 changes).
Names of change ringing “music” follow a defined pattern. First is a unique name unrelated to any other “method” unless it is an extension or condensation of a an already existing method on a lower or higher number of bells, second comes a term to describe the nature of the formula by which the changes are defined and third comes a name to describe the number of bells involved.  Thus a method called Cambridge Surprise Royal for example has a unique name, “Cambridge”, it has a structure defined as “surprise” (a technical definition a bit too complicated to describe here), and a third term “Royal” meaning it is rung on 10 bells. All methods are so named. Minor means six bells, Triples means seven bells, Major is eight bells, nine is Caters, 11 Cinques and Maximus is 12 bells. There are a few towers with 14 & 16 bells whence the method names extend to Sextuples (13 bells), 14-in, 14 bells, Septuples (15 bells) and 16-in 16 bells. We have Doubles on five bells & Minimus on Four bells.
A quarter peal is a similar kind of performance to a full peal but with a qualifying length of 1250+ changes. This will take usually less than an hour to ring & is very popular for marking special events & for Sunday ringing. Typically, about five times more quarter peals are rung than full peals. Both quarter peals and full peals are published in The Ringing World, a weekly official magazine for the ringing exercise and such publication is a qualifying requirement for a peal.

The bell ringer does not learn the numbers as shown in the diagram. For each bell, a line is drawn through the column of changes which represent the method. This line, which traces that bell’s path is traditionally known as the “Blue Line” (so named because an early book on change ringing has such lines printed in blue) and it is this, particularly for complicated methods that the bell ringer learns. There are other relevant features that must be learnt but the blue line is the most important. To actually ring the method, the bell ringer also develops an intense sense of listening and a peculiar and mysterious ability called “ropesight”, this cannot be forced and develops naturally. This enables him to be able to “see” what is happening around him. Ringing is done from memory, no artificial aid being permitted. Similarly, the ringing must be conducted from memory.

Bell ringing and change ringing is carried out throughout the world wherever the English and British influence has been felt. There is ringing throughout the British Isles including Ireland, in Australia & New Zealand, in Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and in Canada and the USA. There is a single tower at Lahore and a private ring at Dordrecht in The Netherlands. There are also unringable bells at Madrid in Spain, at Pune in India, and at St. Vincent, one of the the Windward Islands. We all ring the same methods and all speak the same (bell-ringing) language and are assured of a welcome wherever we go. Truly a Ringing World