Change ringing

Peal board commemorating the ringing of a peal of Bob Minor in 1910 at St Peter and St Paul Church, Chatteris, Cambridgeshire.

Change ringing is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a controlled manner to produce variations in their striking sequences. This may be by method ringing in which the ringers commit to memory the rules for generating each change, or by call changes, where the ringers are instructed how to generate each new change by calls from a conductor. This creates a form of bell music which is continually changing, but which cannot be discerned as a conventional melody.

Change ringing originated following the invention of English full-circle tower bell ringing in the early 17th century, when bell ringers found that swinging a bell through a much larger arc than that required for swing-chiming gave control over the time between successive strikes of the clapper. This culminated in the technique of ringing bells through a full circle, which enabled ringers to accurately ring mathematical permutations, known as "changes".

Speed control of a tower bell is exerted by the ringer only when each bell is mouth upwards and moving slowly near the balance point; this constraint and the intricate rope manipulation involved normally requires that each bell has its own ringer. The considerable weights of full-circle tower bells also means they cannot be easily stopped or started, and the change of speed between successive strikes is limited. This in turn places basic limitations on the rules for generating easily rung changes; each bell must strike once in each sequence, but its order of striking in successive changes can only change by one place.

Change ringing is practised worldwide, but it is by far most common on church bells in English churches, where it first developed. Change ringing is also performed on handbells, where conventionally each ringer holds two bells, and chimed on carillons and chimes of bells; though these are more commonly used to play conventional melodies.

Technique and physics

Bell ringing at Stoke Gabriel parish church, Devon, England. This is in the "ringing chamber".
The bells of St Bees Priory shown in the "down" position, where they are normally left between ringing sessions. This is in the "bell chamber".
The bells of St Bees Priory shown in the "up" position. When being rung they swing through a full circle from mouth upwards round to mouth upwards, and then back again.
6 bells change ringing in Kirkbymoorside

Today, some towers have as many as sixteen bells that can be rung together, though six or eight bells are more common. The highest pitch bell is known as the treble, and the lowest is the tenor. For convenience, the bells are referred to by number, with the treble being number 1 and the other bells numbered by their pitch—2,3,4, etc.—sequentially down the scale. (This system often seems counter-intuitive to musicians, who are used to a numbering that ascends with pitch.) The bells are usually tuned to a diatonic major scale, with the tenor bell being the tonic (or key) note of the scale. Some towers contain additional bells so that different subsets of the full number can be rung, still to a diatonic scale.[1] For instance, many 12-bell towers have a flat sixth,[2] which if rung instead of the normal number 6 bell allows 2 to 9 to be rung as light diatonic octave; other variations are also possible.[3]

Mechanism of a bell hung for English full-circle ringing

The bells in a tower reside in the bell chamber or belfry usually with louvred windows to enable the sound to escape.

The bells are mounted within a bellframe of steel or wood. Each bell is suspended from a headstock fitted on trunnions (plain or non-friction bearings) mounted to the belfry framework so that the bell assembly can rotate. When stationary in the down position, the centre of mass of the bell and clapper is appreciably below the centreline of the trunnion supports, giving a pendulous effect to the assembly, and this dynamic is controlled by the ringer's rope. The headstock is fitted with a wooden stay, which, in conjunction with a slider, limits maximum rotational movement to a little less than 370 degrees. To the headstock a large wooden wheel is fitted and to which a rope is attached. The rope wraps and unwraps as the bell rotates backwards and forwards. This is full circle ringing and quite different from fixed or limited motion bells, which chime. Within the bell the clapper is constrained to swing in the direction that the bell swings. The clapper is a rigid steel or wrought iron bar with a large ball to strike the bell. The thickest part of the mouth of bell is called the soundbow and it is against this that the ball strikes. Beyond the ball is a flight, which controls the speed of the clapper. In very small bells this can be nearly as long as the rest of the clapper.

Below the bell chamber there may be one or more sound chambers, (one of which is likely to house the clock mechanism if the church has one) and through which the rope passes before it drops into the ringing chamber or room. Typically, the rope's length is such that it falls close to or on to the floor of the ringing chamber. About 5 feet (1.5 m) from the floor, the rope has a woolen grip called the sally (usually around 4 feet (1.2 m) long) while the lower end of the rope is doubled over to form an easily held tail-end.

Unattended bells are normally left hanging in the normal ("down") position but prior to being rung, the bells are rung up. In the down position, the bells are safe if a person touches them or pulls a rope. A bell that is up is dangerous to be near, and only expert ringers should ever contemplate entering a bell chamber or touching a rope when the bells are up. The ringer pulls on the rope and starts the bell swinging. Each time the bell swings the ringer adds a little more energy to the system, similar to pushing a child's swing. Eventually there is enough energy for the bell to swing right up and be left over-centre just beyond the balance point with the stay resting against the slider.

Bellringers typically stand in a circle around the ringing chamber, each managing one rope. Bells and their attendant ropes are so mounted that the ropes are pulled in a circular sequence, usually clockwise, starting with the lightest (treble) bell and descending to the heaviest (tenor). To ring the bell, the ringer first pulls the sally towards the floor, upsetting the bell's balance and swinging it on its bearings. As the bell swings downwards the rope unwinds from the wheel and the ringer adds enough pull to counteract friction and air resistance. The bell winds the rope back onto the other side of the wheel as it rises and the ringer can slow (or check) the rise of the bell if required.

The rope is attached to one side of the wheel so that a different amount of rope is wound on and off as it swings to and fro. The first stroke is the handstroke with a small amount of rope on the wheel. The ringer pulls on the sally and when the bell swings up it draws up more rope onto the wheel and the sally rises to, or beyond, the ceiling. The ringer keeps hold of the tail-end of the rope to control the bell. After a controlled pause with the bell, on or close to its balancing point, the ringer rings the backstroke by pulling the tail-end, causing the bell to swing back towards its starting position. As the sally rises, the ringer catches it to pause the bell at its balance position.

In English-style ringing the bell is rung up such that the clapper is resting on the lower edge of the bell when the bell is on the stay. During each swing, the clapper travels faster than the bell, eventually striking the soundbow and making the bell sound. The bell speaks roughly when horizontal as it rises, thus projecting the sound outwards. The clapper rebounds very slightly, allowing the bell to ring. At the balance point, the clapper passes over the top and rests against the soundbow.

In change ringing where the order the bells are struck in is constantly altered, it is necessary to time the swing so that this strike occurs with precise positioning within the overall pattern. Precision of striking is important at all times. To ring quickly, the bell must not complete the full 360 degrees before swinging back in the opposite direction, while ringing slowly the ringer waits with the bell held at the balance, before allowing it to swing back. To achieve this, the ringer must work with the bell's momentum, applying just the right amount of effort during the pull that the bell swings as far as required and no further. This allows two adjacent bells to reverse positions; the quicker bell passing the slower bell to establish a new pattern. Although ringing up certainly involves some physical exertion, actual ringing should rely more on practised skill than mere brute force. Even the smallest bell in a tower is much heavier than the person ringing it. The heaviest bell hung for full-circle ringing is in Liverpool Cathedral and weighs 82 long cwt 0 qr 11 lb (9,195 lb or 4,171 kg).[4][5] Despite this colossal weight, it can be safely rung by one (experienced) ringer.

(Whilst heavier bells exist—for example Big Ben—they are generally only chimed, either by swinging the bell slightly or having the bell hung dead and using a mechanical hammer.)

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Lëtzebuergesch: Wiessellauden