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Change Ringing? What's That?

Change Ringing is a team sport, a highly coordinated musical performance, an antique art, and a demanding exercise that involves a group of people ringing rhythmically a set of tuned bells through a series of changing sequences that are determined by mathematical principles and executed according to learned patterns.

What are the bells like?

The bells are cast in bronze and are usually large: in North America tower bells typically weigh between 100 and 3600 pounds and are characterized by richness, dignity, and mellowness of tone. These bells are typically hung in rings of 8 to 12 near the top of a tower in the belfry. Each bell is attached by its headstock to a large vertical wooden wheel and is rung by means of a long rope that runs in a channel around the wheel's rim and down into the ringing room below. This arrangement enables the ringers standing in a circle there to very precisely control their bell's rotation and, thus, its sounding. Unlike the tower bells in most churches and schools in North America, this way of hanging allows change ringing bells to begin their swing from a mouth-upward position and rotate through about 360 degrees before reaching the balance point then swinging back in the opposite direction.

Aren't there Hand Bells too?

Change ringing is also done on hand bells that are cast in bronze, typically weigh only between one-half and two pounds, and are noted for their bright, crisp tones. These bells are generally rung in sets of 6 to 12 bells by ringers who sit or stand in a circle facing each other, holding one bell in each hand by a short leather strap.

How are tower bells rung to changes?

In the ringing room, ringers stand in a circle, one behind each rope. The person ringing the lightest bell, the Treble, calls out the traditional alert: “Look to!” Then as she starts her pull, “Treble's going!,” and finally as the bell begins to swing downward, “She's gone!” Each other bell is then pulled off in rapid succession creating the mesmerizing sound of a descending scale, repeated over and over again, known as Rounds. The ringer who has been designated the conductor will soon announce the method to be rung by calling out, for example, “Go, Grandsire Triples,” and smoothly—if all goes well—the sequence of sounds will change from the descending scale to continually shifting orders while keeping to the steady, even rhythm until the sequence naturally returns to Rounds again.

How do ringers actually manage to do this?

Ringers use a four-part stroke in order to move the bell back and forth through a whole pull. Subtle adjustments in the timing and strength of each of the pulls and checks allow the ringer to alter the interval between sequential soundings of his bell, thus effectively moving its position in the row. Neither great size, strength, nor physical effort is generally required for change ringing on tower bells. Once the smooth, straight pull (shown in this photo) that guides the rope most efficiently in its path has been fully mastered, even small people can ring rather large bells.

For all the bells to be sounded exactly where and when they should be requires very close teamwork among all the ringers in the band. Since a bell sounds about three quarters of a second after the ringer has initiated the pull, achieving correct striking requires the development of reliable internal rhythm, fine attunement to the actual sound of the bells, and the ability to interpret the visible movement of all the ropes in the circle. Development of these essential skills for basic bell control typically takes some months for learners, while achieving true mastery is a lifelong endeavor for most ringers.

No written music sheets are used during ringing. The ringers commit various methods to memory and shift within or among them according to occasional short “calls” from their conductor. The methods are collected in books—every tower has a copy of Diagrams and most ringers carry a copy of The Ringing World Diary, and, more importantly virtually all methods are available on-line.

What are Methods?

Methods do not resemble either the tunes typically played on a carillon or the jangle of European style church bell ringing but instead are the majestic pealing that is associated with great English state ceremonies as well as humble village weddings. The changes in the order of the bells' sounding that constitute a method are governed by four rules and one ideal. The rules are that: (a) each bell sounds once in each row; (b) no bell may move more than one position at each change/row; (c) no row is repeated; and (d) the ringing begins and ends in Rounds. The ideal is that the spacing should be exactly equal between every pair of bells in each row.

The diagram at right shows the simplest of the methods, Plain Hunt, on four bells with a line drawn through the path—that is, the sequence of moves forward and backward in the order—that is followed by Bell #2. So, in the first row the bells ring in order 1234, then in the next row adjacent pairs of bells all switch positions and the order becomes 2143. In the next row, the bells in the first and last positions remain in place and all the others switch producing the new order: 2413. Such switching continues until the bells come back into Rounds. Four bells can only be rung in 24 different orders, but eight bells can be rung in 40,320 different orders, giving scope for enormous variety in method construction.

How did this style of ringing develop?

From the 12th century, the chiming of tower bells had been customary in all English villages to tell the time of day and to call people to church services. Ringing changes on these bells first arose around the year 1600 in the eastern counties of England, having been made possible by two parallel developments. The motivating development was the desire for the bells to be heard more broadly over the countryside and for the ringers to have more control over the timing of the sound. The enabling development was the replacement of the rope and lever, which had been used from the earliest days to sound the bells with, first, quarter wheels and then, by stages, the full-circle wheels that we still use today.

This approach had the great benefit of permitting the bell to sound mouth-up, projecting its voice widely up and out of the tower. It also allowed much more precise control of the timing of each blow and thereby stimulated the imagination of ringers to develop a repertoire of different methods. The earliest record we have of these is from 1668:Tintinnalogia: or, The Art of Ringing. Wherein Is laid down plain and easie Rules for Ringing all sorts of Plain Changes. Together with Directions for Pricking and Ringing all Cross Peals; with a full Discovery of the Mystery and Grounds of each Peal. New methods came along slowly during the next two centuries but there was a burst of development in the late Victorian period which has been followed by an even greater wave during the last several decades as computer-aided composition has supported the creation of thousands of new methods.

Why do they do it?

“Anywhere you hear bells ringing you will be made welcome and . . . away from home you need never be without friends.”
“ The fact that ringing is weird undoubtedly remains plus for me.”
“[It's] the combination of mental plus physical challenge, set to sound.”
“You're listening and looking for clues, either from the conductor or other musicians around you, about speed, timing, volume, etc. -- and that's all while keeping your focus on your own 'line' at the same time and [ringing] it too.”

Change ringers are often initially attracted to “The Exercise,” as it was called in earlier times, by the unusual sound or the mathematical nature of its music as well as the antiquity of the art. They typically continue to ring because of their pleasure in the powerful combination of mental discipline, physical skill, and close teamwork that is required for it all to work. Added to that are the benefits of the relationships among local and regional ringers and their participation in the wider international ringing community as well as, for those who are religious, an opportunity to support their church in a practical and pleasurable way.

Where is change ringing done?

On this side of the Atlantic more than 500 members of the North American Guild of Change Ringers ring in 45 towers and an additional half dozen or so locations with Handbell bands only. Go to Find Ringing Near You to learn more about these towers. Similar numbers of ringers and towers are active in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland and a smaller number in South Africa. The majority of the world's change ringing still takes place in England, where today about 40,000 ringers serve nearly 5000 towers.

How can I learn to do it?

The ideal thing would be to go to Find Ringing Near You, locate a nearby tower or handbell band, contact them, then go there at your earliest opportunity. If you are far from any Tower or Handbell bands, go to the Calendar of Events and search for a ringing course that offers “handling lessons” anywhere you can get to, contact the organizers and follow through with them. You may also contact the NAGCR's Education Officer directly. Finally, there are many sources of information about English Change Ringing on the web in addition to this website. Go to Useful Links to explore these possibilities.

What is the NAGCR?

The North American Guild of Change Ringers was formed in 1972 as a means of linking change ringers to each other and supporting the growth of change ringing in North America. For more information about our association see About the Guild. Feel free to contact any of our officers for more information about change ringing or the Guild itself.