Change Ringing

For as long as towers have had bells, folks have been ringing them. Whether calling townspeople to worship, ringing out in celebration, or tolling in remembrance, bells signal a special occasion. Gradually, the patterns and techniques of bell ringing were codified into a set of standards. This is the art of change ringing.

Originating during the 16th century in England, change ringing involves a group of people rhythmically ringing a set of tuned bells in close coordination through a series of changing sequences that are determined by mathematical principles and executed according to learned patterns. Rather than a conventional melody, the result is a rich cascade of sound. Today, there are roughly 50 towers dotted across the U.S. with English change ringing bells.

Video: Change ringers demonstrate the art of change ringing on the bells at Trinity Church, Wall Street, in New York City. Courtesy: North American Guild of Change Ringers.

Change ringing bells are mounted on wheels in a room directly above the ringers. Unlike bells in most churches and schools in North America, change ringing bells begin their swing from a mouth-upward position and rotate full circle before reaching the balance point and then, by the pulling of a rope by the ringer, swing back in the opposite direction. By manipulating the rope, bell ringers maintain full control of the swinging bell – varying the speed or pausing briefly to accommodate other ringers and maintain their place in the sequence.

Cover image: Ring of peal bells at Washington National Cathedral. Courtesy: Washington National Cathedral.

Making music through logic

A set of bells (called a “ring” of bells) commonly comprises 5, 6, 8, 10 or 12 bells. Each is tuned to a specific note and each is rung by a single person pulling a rope below the bell. If you think of the bells being numbered, the simplest sequence to ring 10 bells would be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.  By moving bells up and down the ringing order by calling out changes, a new sequence or method is created. Pre-set sequences are given names and committed to memory, so that when a method is called, ringers know when his or her bell must sound. A method that consists of sufficient numerical changes and which meets set criteria can be called a peal.

Change ringing method called “Cambridge Surprise Minor” on six bells.

Image: A change ringing method called “Cambridge Surprise Minor” on six bells. The red and blue lines show the number of the first and second bells through the sequence.

Depending on the number of bells employed, the number of variations in the striking sequences (and by extension, the number of sound combinations we hear standing on the ground below) can vary greatly. For instance, a full peal on 10 bells, consisting of 5,040 changes, would take nearly 3.5 hours to complete. 

As one might deduce, a full peal is only attempted on special occasions. In fact, it would take approximately 123 days, ringing continuously day and night, to ring all the possible mathematical permutations on 10 bells. We can’t imagine the neighbors would be too pleased.

Section image: Ropes hung for change ringing in the tower of Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire, UK.

Learn the art of change ringing

Do you like making a glorious sound, getting a bit of exercise, tuning-out distractions, and being part of a team sport? Then consider learning the art of change ringing! You can learn change ringing virtually, with handbells, or on the ropes in your nearest tower. You’ll start with one-on-one instruction on how to control a swinging bell with a rope, before gradually expanding your knowledge of methods by ringing with the larger group.

Video: “Discovering Bellringing” produced by the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers.

Pretty soon, you’ll be an integral part of successful peal attempts on important occasions. You don’t need any prior musical experience – just a willingness to learn! The methods and styles of change ringing are quite consistent around the globe. Many ringers stop by towers on their travels and are invited to ring alongside local teams. There truly is a global family of change ringers!

Section image: Bell ringers with the Washington Ringing Society attempt a quarter peal at Washington National Cathedral.


Link to the North American Guild of Change Ringers