Is bell-ringing an art? Is it music? Is it maths? Is it a fun way to do a bit of heavy lifting and burn up a few calories or is it an excuse to shoot the breeze with some like-minded people?
Bell-ringing or campanology as it’s officially called, is all of these things. And more.
Actually, campanology is the study of bells and it doesn’t just cover bell-ringing. It encompasses the history and traditions of bells, the technology behind how they’re made, tuned and rung and of course, it encompasses the music.
For centuries, the sound of bells ringing have influenced society and marked occasions from the sad and sombre to the celebratory and joyous. The ancient art of bell ringing has stood the test of time and in fact, if you read a book called Tintinnalogia, you’ll find that the methods of bellringing with all their patterns of repetition, are the same today as they were when the book was written way back in 1668!
Interestingly, bell ringing music is unlike other kinds of conventional music. It’s not written down with notes and chords but is rather an order or sequence based on a mathematical array of numbers that the team of bell-ringers performs entirely by memory. The sounds that are generated depend more on technique than strength.
Bell-ringing is a team activity and the bell-ringers have to synchronise with each other together to create the melodies. Things happen quite quickly and bell-ringers have to have their wits about them, memorising the sequences and working in fractions of seconds.
You might think that ‘learning the ropes’ was a saying that originated from bell-ringing but it’s actually an old nautical term dating back to the days of sailing ships when new recruits had to learn to tie knots in the ropes to manoeuvre the sails to maximise wind efficiency, but the art of bell-ringing certainly relies on the campanologists knowing the ropes!
The biggest change to the art of bellringing happened in England when the bell wheel was developed in the early 17th century.
In the early days, bells could only be swung by a single lever which prevented the bell from swinging very high but the bell wheel mechanism allowed the bells to rotate full-circle. This allowed bell-ringers to control the movement precisely in order to create changing musical patterns - and thus ‘ring the changes’. The bell ringer can ‘set’ the bell by gradually increasing the swing of the bell until it is balanced with the open mouth facing skywards and then with each pull of the rope, the bell will swing and sound.
The advent of change-ringing meant that bell ringers could adjust the time at which they pulled the rope to control the speed (and sound) of the bell striking.
Bell ringers have to memorise the mathematical array of numbers with different melodies created by varying the order of the sequence of the bell chimes. Change sequences or patterns are all given names and while Plain Bob Minor, Cambridge Major or Grandsire Doubles may sound like characters from a novel and the diagrams for them may look indecipherable, they’re music to the ears (and eyes!) of a bell-ringer.
If this ancient art a’peals’ to you, why not experience bell-ringing for yourself?
The Bell Tower in Perth is home to some of the biggest and oldest bells in the world and you can have a go at chiming them on the interactive Bell Tower Chiming Experience tours which run from Monday to Saturday. You can also hear the ringers (all of whom are volunteers and members of the St. Martin’s Society of Change Ringers Inc) practising their ancient art at various times of the week at this fascinating Perth attraction.
For further information on this unique and fun experience which is unlike anything else in the world, please visit www.thebelltower.com.au or call them on 08 6210 0444.