What is Change Ringing?
The bells of the towers listed in these pages produce no recognizable tunes. Yet they are rung in sequences as disciplined and orderly as the stones and timbers of the towers themselves. These bells, rung in an ancient yet very modern way, 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. There are no computers or electronic devices. Change ringing depends on real bells, each swung in a complete circle by a single person: six bells - six people, eight bells - eight people, usually standing in a circle.
The bells are special in several ways. They are large, ranging in weight from a few hundred pounds to several tons. A ring of bells consists of four to twelve bronze bells.
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 stout frames that allow the bells to swing through 360 degrees. Each bell is attached to a wooden wheel with a handmade rope running around it. The mechanism achieves such exquisite balance that ten-year-olds and octogenarians can control the largest bell easily. The harmonic richness of a swinging bell cannot be matched by the same bell hanging stationary, but 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 (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
To see the animation, you may need to refresh the page if you downloaded any of the sound or video files.
|Mr. Bruce Butler, Education officer of the North American Guild of Change Ringers, explains the basics of how a change ringing bell works. To view this presentation, click on the bell. (need real player)|
Because of their great momentum, bells take about two seconds to rotate, so they cannot be used to play ordinary "melodic" music. But they can be 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, the bells strike in a sequence known as rounds, which ringers denote by a row of numbers:
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.
No amount of explanation of change ringing - or its pleasures - can substitute for listening to and ringing bells. However, it may help non-ringers to enjoy change ringing if they know what to listen for.
First, the rhythm should not vary from row to row. The rhythm
provides the steady framework 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.
Sometimes it always 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
In order to ring a different row with each pull of the rope, ringers have devised methods, 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). The numbers increase rapidly. Six bells yield 720 changes (1x2x3x4x5x6), seven bells 5,040. Eight bells can be rung through 40,320 changes.
Experienced ringers test and extend their abilities by ringing peals: 5,000 or more changes without breaks or repeating a row. Peals customarily last about three hours. The first peal was rung in England in 1715.
The first peal in North America was rung at Christ Church, Philadelphia, in 1850. The band included several ringers brought to the United States by P.T. Barnum for his circus. The first peal in Canada was rung at the Cathedral of the Holy Rosary, Vancouver, for the coronation of George V in 1911. In the past decade an average of 80 peals has been rung in North America each year.
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 must thus 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, much change ringing is done on hand bells in areas far from a tower. Although it is difficult for a group to learn to ring in isolation, some of our ringers have begun with only the help of some books, letters, and a few visits with experienced ringers.
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 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 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 in the planning stage. There are over 400 ringers in North America.
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.
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. You be the judge. Come to a practice session and join in.
The North American Guild of Change Ringers encompasses and links together ringers from the continent's widely separated towers and hand bell groups. Its meetings attract ringers from all over Canada and the United States as well as other parts of the world where change ringing is practiced. The Guild publishes a quarterly newsletter, The Clapper, conducts ringing courses, provides a book service, rents films, and distributes information about change ringing in North America. The North American Guild is affiliated with the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers in England.
For more information about change ringing please feel free to contact or look at the Affiliated Towers or Handbell Ringing groups and contact the ringers close to you.
Updated December 22, 2010