Bells as Folk Music

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In the eastern United States the end of a deathly silence looms bell-shaped on the evening air. From Boston, Massachusetts, to Brewster, New York; from Houston, Texas, to Hendersonville, North Carolina, sturdy towers are pouring the clamorous majesty of a song new to America, heralding the spread of a sound that is both music and proclamation.

The sound is neither the synchronized charm of handbell choirs, nor the mechanical chimes of the carillon. Still less is it their electronic equivalent! The full tones and wild cadences of bells rung through a complete 360 degree circle, each under the skilled control of one ringer, are our theme. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote,


" . . . each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name"

As Kingfishers Catch Fire


Where did this sound originate, and how legitimate is its claim to be considered folk music? Will the tradition continue to expand or is it doomed to peak and then fall away, victim of another musical fad? The use of bells goes back to ancient times. The Chinese were the first to cast bells, in about 1500 B.C. These were cup-shaped instruments and difficult to tune, though they served a useful secondary purpose when inverted as standards of liquid measure!

Early bells were usually made of plates riveted together and of varying shapes. It is not difficult to imagine that these were designed not as musical instruments but as signaling devices. Often they also had religious significance, their noise being efficacious in driving away evil spirits (and probably most other intelligent beings as well!). This is the origin of the use of bells or crotals hung round the necks of cows and other farm animals as charms in some parts of the world.

Although the use of bells of one kind or another is widespread, the rise of the bell as a musical instrument (classified among the large "idiophone" group) really dates from the Middle Ages in Europe with the invention of bell metal, an alloy of 13 parts copper to four parts tin. In character this is a hard, crystalline, immensely durable metal, subject only to initial corrosion of the surface which then forms a protective, greenish coating. Bells do not change much over the centuries, except that their tone is said to become more mellow.



Bell hung for English-style ringing. A wooden beam or "stay" is inserted into the metal channel D to engage the wooden slider E and so prevent the bell continuing to spin round and round when it reaches the top of its circle.


The more tin or soft metal added to the mixture, paradoxically, the harder is the resultant alloy and the more musical the bell made from it. However, the harder it is, the more brittle it becomes, so the art of bell founding depends on finding the optimum compromise. Bell metal is said to be true when a piece one inch thick held in the hand can be broken with a two-pound hammer.

Because of the difficulty of transportation, early bells were often cast by traveling founders on site. They would dig a pit and line it with clay to form a mold, and then build up the inner core from bricks, clay and cow-hair—the same materials in use now. Although this description sounds hit-and-miss, many bells were very successful and some of these fourteenth-century castings are still in use today in Europe.

Pleasant though the sound of one bell might be, it can hardly qualify as a musical instrument on its own. As long as bells were intended for a single use, tuning was a crude matter of chipping away from the inside of the bell until discordant overtones were brought under control.

Many factors came together to make possible the further development of bells. Improvements in roads and shipping in the sixteenth century made possible the establishment of fixed foundries where attention could be given to improving techniques, particularly the acoustical aspects of bell-making. One of the earliest foundries, the Whitechapel Foundry in London, was established about 1570 and has been in continuous use ever since. From the same building have come the original Liberty Bell and the 1976 Bicentennial Bell with its inscription, "Let Freedom Ring."

Improvements in hanging the bell meant that ringing was no longer a popular village punishment, and this encouraged other people to take an interest in the belfry. It quickly became possible to tune a "ring" of bells and hang them in such a way that they could be swung in controlled sequence, using a cartwheel device on the axle as a lever round which the bellrope ran. The flight of the clapper was fixed so that it swung parallel to the course of the bell instead of freely in any direction. The final step, which made it possible to ring the bells through a complete circle in alternating directions without the danger of the bell spinning round out of control, was the invention of the "stay," a wooden beam which came to rest against a sliding rod at the top of each circle.

While older bells were generally tuned to the diatonic scale, the modern founder, by the use of electronic tuning aids, is able to produce a much more sophisticated note. The principle had been discovered by the Hemony family in seventeenth-century Flanders but its perfect application awaited the advent of more modern technology in the nineteenth and present centuries. Basically, different areas of a bell produce different components of the total sound; by carefully shaving metal from the inside on a vertical lathe, the correct harmonies can be built up.

Fig. 1 shows the principal components of a bell in C weighing two tons.


Fig. 1. Bell in C weighing two tons. Principal components.



It will be noticed that, based on the Hum, the tones lie in the harmonic series. The tierce, however, and others higher than shown, are inharmonic. The tuner must know about these different modes of vibration for, in addition to matching the harmonic series, he must aim to produce a compatible quality of sound in each of the bells in a ring of 6, 8 or 10; and the inharmonic parts are an important factor in the timbre of a bell. The skill required to do this is one reason bells hung for English ringing must be cast in England, since stationary or slow-swinging sets of bells (used in carillons) do not bring out all the tones inherent in the bell. Hence the need for fine tuning is not so great.

Ringing was given a boost by the newly established Church of England and attracted the attention of many talented people who during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries realized the musical potential of the bells and perfected many of the standard "methods" now in regular use. Among these was Fabian Stedman, the father of modern ringing, whose Stedman method is still among the most popular and musical. In 1677 he explained the lively new interest in ringing thus:

These clear days of knowledge, that have ransacked the dark corners of most arts and sciences, and freed their hidden mysteries from the bonds of obscurity, have also registered this of ringing in the catalogue of their improvements.

Men of all types took up the new art—it was not until this century that women were admitted to the belfry—and among the most famous were John Bunyan (see his Grace Abounding), and Paul Revere, who joined the first American ringing band in 1750 at Old North Church, Boston, where bells had been installed six years earlier by Abraham Rudhall of Gloucester.

By the nineteenth century, campanology had spread to nearly every town and village in England, and to a lesser extent to Wales and Scotland. Unfortunately this growth coincided with a decline in America and few if any bells were installed for English-style ringing during the whole of that century. Only rarely was the sound of change-ringing heard on handbells except on one isolated occasion when in 1850 the inhabitants of Philadelphia were astonished and delighted to hear the bells of Christ Church ringing under the auspices of a visiting English team.

It was not until April 19, 1894 (the anniversary of Revere's ride) that the bells of Old North Church rang in the permanent revival of change-ringing in the United States. Their restoration was due to Dr. Arthur H. Nichols, a native Bostonian who had learned the art while living in England. In spite of some opposition and difficulties, Nichols persisted in his efforts and added the Church of the Advent in Boston to the list of American towers in 1900.

From that date the number has slowly grown to the present 13 towers, plus a half dozen in Canada. This small number might seem a disappointment, until it is realized that no less than seven of them have been added in the last 15 years, including the magnificent bells of Washington Cathedral (1964) and the most recent, eight bells at a church in Hendersonville, dedicated on September 10, 1978.

Change-ringing may be recognized by the subtlety of the continually changing order of the bells, the regularity of the rhythm, and above all by the fullness of tone associated with the way the bells are rung. Only change-ringing, in fact, brings out the full range of values in each bell's sound spectrum.

The simplest form of change-ringing is aptly named Original, or Plain Hunting, and, on six bells, goes like this:


It will be seen that, by changing alternately all three pairs and the inner two pairs of bells, each bell is made to follow a straight path diagonally across the columns until it returns to its starting place.

One of the oldest methods is Stedman, in which the brilliant simplicity of the method relies on splitting the bells into two groups: the front three, and the rest (Stedman may be rung on five or any higher odd number of bells). Here is part of the plain course, or "theme," on which the experienced conductor can superimpose variations:


Usually a sixth bell, the "tenor," is added to ring behind the other five. It sets the speed and rhythm and gives completeness to each row of changes.

More interesting musically are methods in which the tenor takes part in the general work instead of remaining in the same position throughout. In many of these, echoes and near-repetitions give an effect of musical progression that is far removed from the straightforward statements of Plain Hunting and the easier methods. They are correspondingly more difficult to ring and to compose, but are satisfying and delightful to the ear. Here, for example, are a few "leads" (the rough equivalent of bars or measures) of Cambridge Surprise Minor:


It will be noticed that in all these examples, no row is ever repeated. Each bell is constantly moving from one position to the next (and never more than one step at a time), only pausing for one extra blow in the same place occasionally. It should be emphasized that each time any bell strikes, it does so in a new position.

For the sake of brevity the above plain courses have not been completed, but by following the pattern established in the examples the reader should be able to bring the bells back to rounds (123456) without much difficulty! The plain course in any method can be extended by the use of "calls," which transpose the positions of two or more bells and have the effect of altering the order of the bells within the limits defined by the method. In this way ringing may be made to continue for hours at a time, and on seven bells without any repetition. This is because the "extent" or maximum number of changes possible on any number of bells is 5,040 changes on seven bells and takes about three hours to ring.

The extent is the mathematical product of the number of bells. Thus the extent on four bells is 24 and takes 35 seconds to ring; on 12 bells (the highest number) it is 479,001,600 and takes 38 years to ring!

A "peal" consists of at least 5,040 changes; anything less is known as a "touch." Many ringers take great pride in amassing peals to their name but they are nevertheless in a small minority. The majority of the 40,000 change-ringers are content to ring for half an hour before Sunday worship and a couple of hours practicing during the week.

It might be thought impossible for the human brain to remember so many rows of figures, and of course it is! Ringers do not memorize long lists of numbers, but analyze each method by joining together the number of a selected bell on each row by a line. As he does so the pattern characteristic of the method will emerge. The resultant line is known as the bell's duty, and is generally the same shape for each bell (though each starts at a different point along the line). By committing to memory the profile of the line for each method, and certain other key information, it is possible to ring any method, although the natural progression is to start with more straight-forward ones and work upwards.

It is in their wide appeal that bells can lay claim to be folk music. Even though most listeners do not understand the intricacies of what they are hearing, bells are as much a part of the English landscape as the churches they dignify. When their use was banned during World War II there was a public outcry.

The ringers themselves are of all ages and backgrounds. Although many friendships flourish outside the tower, inside it personal feelings are laid aside in favor of the dedicated team spirit which is essential to successful ringing.

It is true that the appeal of ringing is wider than the musical one. Ringing is a pleasant and useful form of exercise (and is known as "the Exercise" among the fraternity). It teaches concentration and physical coordination, and is especially valuable to students for that reason. (The constant stretching up and down means it is excellent treatment for back ailments.)

However, many ringers would see their activity primarily as an act of worship, as much a part of the church service as the contributions of choir and organist.

Never has campanology enjoyed so wide a following as today. The order books of both the English foundries are full. Ringing methods have been greatly advanced by computer technology. Even here in North America, the Guild of Change Ringers has an unprecedented 250 members and reports growing enthusiasm.

So far, all the towers in the States are on the east side. West of Mitchell Tower, Chicago, all is quiet. Efforts are, however, being made to introduce the glorious sound of bells to the rest of the country, and it is to be hoped that it will not be long before the name of Fabian Stedman is as honored in San Francisco and Los Angeles as in Washington, D.C., and Houston.

(The author would be glad to answer any inquiries about the practicalities of installing rings of bells.)

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Last modified on Friday, 09/11/2018

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