Change ringing

From Academic Kids

Change ringing is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns called "changes", without attempting to ring a conventional tune. It originated in the British Isles and remains most popular there today, as well as in countries around the world with British influence. On continental Europe, by contrast, a different form of campanology, carillon ringing (which does aim at recognizable melodies), is much more popular. Like carillons, change-ringing bells are often found in church towers; but the two methods are entirely different not only in their musical aims, but also in their physical set-ups. A carillon consists of a large number of bells which are struck by hammers all tied in to a central framework so that one carilloneur can control them all; change ringing, by contrast, uses a smaller number of bells and typically requires a ringer for each bell.


Mechanics of church bellringing

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Bell ringing practice in Stoke Gabriel parish church, south Devon, England

A bell tower in which bellringing takes place can contain up to sixteen bells, but six or eight bells are a more common number for the average church. The bell highest in pitch is known as the treble, and the bell lowest in pitch is called the tenor. For convenience, the bells are numbered with the treble being number 1, and the other bells numbered by their pitch 2,3,4, etc. sequentially down the scale. The bells are usually tuned to a diatonic major scale, with the tenor bell being the tonic (or key) note of the scale.

The bellringers typically stand in a circle around the ringing room, each managing the rope for his or her bell above. Each bell is suspended from a headstock, allowing it to rotate through just over 360 degrees; the headstock is fitted with a wooden wheel around which the rope is wrapped.

During a session of ringing the bell sits poised upside-down while it awaits its turn to ring. By pulling the rope, the ringer upsets the balance; the bell swings down then back up again on the other side, describing slightly more than a 360-degree circle. During the swing, the clapper inside the bell will have struck the soundbow, making the bell resonate exactly once. This action constitutes the handstroke, at the end of which the ringer's arms are above his head, and a portion of the bell-rope is wrapped around almost the entirety of the wheel. After a pause, the ringer again pulls the rope and the bell revolves in the opposite direction, returning to its original position, again sounding exactly once. This is the back-stroke.

Although ringing certainly involves some physical exertion, the successful ringer is one with practised skill rather than mere brute force; after all, even small bells are typically much heavier than the people ringing them, and can only be rung at all because they are well-balanced in their frames. The heaviest bell hung for full-circle ringing is contained in Liverpool Cathedral and weighs over four tonnes. Despite this colossal weight, it can be safely rung by one (experienced) ringer. While heavier bells exist (for example Big Ben) they are generally only chimed, either by swinging the bell slightly or using mechanical hammers.


Change ringing can also be carried out on handbells (small bells, generally weighing only a few hundred grams). Many groups of tower bell-ringers use handbells to practice (in which case, just as in the tower, one ringer handles one bell). Some bell-ringers pursue handbell ringing as an endeavour in its own right, in which case each ringer often handles two bells.

Mathematics of bellringing

The simplest way to use a set of bells is ringing rounds, which is sounding the bells repeatedly in sequence: 1, 2, 3, etc.. Musicians will recognise this as a portion of a descending scale. Ringers typically start with rounds and then begin to vary the bells' order, moving on to a series of distinct rows. Each row (or change) is a specific permutation of the bells (for example 123456 or 531246) — that is to say, it includes each bell rung once and only once, the difference from row to row being the order in which the bells follow one another. There are two ways to achieve this: swapping one pair of bells at a time, with one ringer (the conductor) telling everyone else which pair to swap, or swapping multiple pairs of bells to a prescribed pattern, with the conductor just calling the method. The former is known as call change ringing and the latter as method ringing.

Call change ringing

Call change ringing is practiced as a stepping stone to method ringing as many learners find it is easier to do. However, in the county of Devon, England there are many towers that practice this form of ringing exclusively. Hence call change ringing is also known as "Devon style". The bells are made to change order by the conductor calling a pair of bells to swap. Each call takes the form of two numbers corresponding to the bells which are to change. For example, if the bells start in the order 135246 and the conductor calls "5 to 2" (which is shorthand for "bell number 5 ring after bell number 2") the resulting order of the bells is 132546. This, the accepted way of calling in Devon and many towers elsewhere, is known as calling up as the bell corresponding to the number called first moves up after the second bell. Call changes can also be called by calling down: in the example above the call would become "2 to 3" for the same result.

For a peal of call changes the bells are firstly rung up in peal (all the bells ringing together in rounds, know as the rise), a number of changes are rung (at the top) and then the bells are rung down in peal (again all the bells ringing together in rounds, known as the lower). All this takes anything from 10 to 30 minutes depending on the number of changes called and the number of bells being rung.

Method ringing

Method ringing, or "scientific ringing", is what bell ringers usually mean by "change ringing". The theoretical goal of method ringing is to ring every possible change in sequence; this is called an "extent" (in the past this was sometimes referred to as a "full peal"). If a tower has <math>n<math> bells, they will have <math>n!<math> (read factorial) possible permutations, a number that becomes quite large as <math>n<math> grows. For example, while six bells have 720 permutations, 8 bells have 40,320; furthermore, 10! = 3,628,800, and 12! = 479,001,600. Estimating two seconds for each change (a brisk pace), we find that while an extent on 6 bells can be accomplished in half an hour, a full peal on 8 bells should take nearly twenty-two and a half hours (in 1963 ringers in Loughborough accomplished the feat in just under 18 hours), while an extent on 12 bells would take over thirty years! In practice, then, when ringing larger numbers of bells ringers have to settle for only a portion of a complete permutation-series.

Bellringers do not cycle through the various permutations in haphazard order; nor do they typically try to read off each row from a mind-numbingly repetitive list of numbers tacked up in the ringing chamber. Instead, various algorithms or methods have been developed which the bellringers can learn conceptually, so that they can deduce most rows from their predecessors without seeing them all written out; when necessary, a caller or conductor (usually one of the ringers) will call out to let the ringers know when they must make some slight variation to the pattern.

Several key strictures govern the methods. In order to change the bells' order from change to change, an individual ringer (as described above) has to accelerate or retard his or her bell's cycle to move it forward or back from row to row; but there is a limit to the extent to which this is possible. As a rule, then, a given bell can only move up or back a single place in the order from one row to the next. Furthermore, for a performance to be true it is vital that, once a given row has been rung, it never be repeated until every other possible permutation has been heard. Finally, it is usual for a performance both to begin and end with "rounds."

When there are too many bells or not enough time for a full extent, ringers do not usually launch themselves on that effort and then abandon it partway. Rather, they compose shorter performances which, starting, typically, from "rounds," make what may be thought of as a "shorter" loop through the available permutations before arriving back at rounds again, following all the same rules as a full peal would. A bellringer devising such a plan would still follow one of the recognized methods, but would make a few slightly different decisions along the way to get back sooner. Depending on how many 'short-cuts' are taken, the ringers might perform a peal (a name today generally applied to any series of at least 5040, i.e. 7! changes), a quarter-peal (at least 1260), or simply a short touch (usually a few hundred changes long). (The term peal is used in a completely different sense depending on whether call change or method ringing is being discussed.)

A wide variety of methods have been devised, often called by quaint names — "Kent Treble Bob Major", "Stedman Caters", "Grandsire Triples" or "Bristol Surprise Maximus", for example. The first part of the name often refers to the inventor or a locality where the method was first rung; the remainder of the name encodes some features of the algorithm itself, particularly the number of bells it is designed for. A method for 4 bells is called a "minimus"; for 6 a "minor"; for 8 a "major"; for 10 a "royal"; and for 12 a "maximus." For an odd number of bells, the terms are "doubles" (5 bells); "triples" (7); "caters" (9"); and so forth. (These customary names, it should be noted, do not necessarily refer to the number of bells being rung, but rather to the number of bells being permuted: it is quite possible to ring (for example) "caters" on ten bells by ringing the tenor in the invariant last place of each row, preceded by permutations of the top nine bells. Indeed, since most bell towers have an even number of bells, the odd-bell systems above are frequently rung this way, with the tenor covering.)

Ringers must thoroughly learn and understand the method they are to use before ringing begins. Various systems have been developed of expressing a given algorithm on paper, such as the rather mathematical place notation. More often a ringer writes out his or her bell's blue line to practice:


The example above shows a partial blue line of the 5th bell for plain hunt on six — the plain hunt, which permutes the bells in a plaiting pattern, being one of the simplest algorithms. (As is often done, the path taken by the 1st bell (the "treble") has here been redlined.) Other more complicated methods permute the bells more elaborately, involving such manoeuvres as dodges, points, fish-tails, and cats-ears.

Striking and striking competitions

Although neither call change nor method ringing produce conventional tunes, it is still the aim of the ringers to produce a pleasant sound. The most pleasant sounds are achieved when the gap between each bell is always the same and the bells don't clash by sounding at the same instant. This achievement is known as good striking.

Striking competitions are held where various bands of ringers attempt to ring with their best striking. They are judged on their number of faults (striking errors); the band with the least number of faults wins.

Many regional ringing associations have annual striking competitions for bands from their region. There are also several nationwide striking competitions, including the prestigious National Twelve-Bell competition [1] ( These competitions may have separate awards for bands ringing on 6, 8, 10 or 12 bells, or for call change and method ringing. The competition organisers may designate a set piece (a particular method or sequence of call changes) which all bands must ring, or else allow each band to ring their best piece.

In a Devon call change competition all the teams that enter the competition ring the same set of call changes, usually the so called "sixties on thirds", complete with a rise and lower in not less than 15 minutes on six bells. The most prestigious of all the competitions in Devon are the two Devon Association of Ringers ( finals, one for towers with six or less bells (The Devon Major Final) and the other for towers with seven or more bells (The Devon 8-Bell Final). These have been held around Easter every year since the 1920s, and the most successful teams in the finals of recent years have been Eggbuckland, a tower in the city of Plymouth, in the Major Final and Kingsteignton in the 8-Bell Final. Due to the number of competitions, ringing by bands from Devon's more successful towers is reckoned to have some of the best striking in the country.

In 2000 an annual National Call Change competition was initiated with the hope of gaining more interest in call change ringing in the rest of the UK. However, attendance from teams outside of Devon has been limited largely due to the competition being held mainly in eastern Devon. In 2004 the competition was won by Eggbuckland's first team, and a team from Hampshire beat a Devon team. This was the first time a Devon team had been beaten by a team from outside the county in this competition.

History and modern status of change-ringing

Change-ringing began in England in the early part of the 17th century. The techniques used today are extremely similar to those developed at that time, with the only major innovations being the use of ball bearings to improve the ease of movement of the bells, and the introduction of Simpson tuning in the early 20th century to improve the intonation of the bells.

The first recorded peal was rung on May 2, 1715 at St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, England, and was of the method today known as Plain Bob Triples. Today change-ringing can frequently be heard from towers all over that country and around the world, often before or after a church service or wedding. While on these everyday occasions the ringers must usually content themselves with shorter "touches," for special occasions a quarter-peal is often rung; a quarter-peal of triples will last something on the order of 45 minutes. Periodically, for a special occasion (or sometimes just for fun) a group of ringers might attempt a peal (the most concise of which will last approximately three hours); if they succeed they often mark the accomplishment with a peal board on the wall of the ringing chamber.

The longest (in terms of changes) peal ever rung was on handbells in Coventry on 2 October, 2004. It consisted of 50400 changes (10 times the changes in a standard peal) of 70 different "Treble Dodging Minor" methods, and took over 17 hours to ring.

The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers is the representative body for all those who ring bells in the traditional English style around the world, and was founded in 1891. Today the Council represents 66 affiliated societies, which cover all parts of the British Isles as well as centres of ringing in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Verona in Italy.

The ringing community has its own weekly newspaper, the Ringing World, which is also the official journal of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Published weekly since 1911 it includes articles and news relating to bellringing and the bellringing community, as well as publishing records of achievements such as peals and quarter-peals.

Another musical style devolved from change-ringing, using the idea of the smaller bells that ringers used to practice with. Handbell ringing has become popular over the last thirty years across the United States. Most groups consist of adults who ring a (on average) four or five octave set of handbells. The bells are set onto tables like piano keys and then lifted and rung in an outward direction or back towards the ringer in some groups. Music is always being written for this unusual instrument. The largest handbell collection belongs to Desert Bells International in Phoenix, Arizona.

See also

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