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Great bells

There are many ways to classify and describe a bell: its shape, age, decoration, tuning – even how and when it rings. Of all these characteristics, a bell’s weight and size can easily set it apart from others. The heaviest in a set is called the bourdon bell. Bourdon bells come in countless weights and sizes, but really big bells are in a class all their own. These are collectively known as ‘great bells’ and their presence in a community is certainly seen, heard, and felt. 

Great bells are generally regarded as those weighing over 8,000 lbs. There are only about 100 of these great bells in America, with most of them serving as the bourdon bell and lower notes in grand carillons. Because of the correlation between the weight and diameter of bells cast in the Western tradition (and how that influences tone), most great bells resonate with a pitch of bass G# or lower. 

These bells are often the most lauded in a set or carillon, and are named or dedicated to individuals of great importance. In the Catholic tradition, the largest bell of a set might be named in honor of the Virgin Mary. In more secular collections, the great bell might bear an inscription of a great personage or figure, like a president, general, or philosopher. Great bells add an element of prestige and majesty to a bell tower.

Image: The 12-ton (24,000-lb.) bourdon bell at Washington National Cathedral measures 8 feet, 8 inches in diameter.


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