Tower Bells

Bell towers adorn some of civilization’s most magnificent buildings and have been a fixture of architectural design for a thousand years. Captivating for their imposing height and monumental scale, they are made more human by the bells within. Tower bells are the heartbeat of a community. In cities all over the world, neighborhoods are defined by the distinctive tones and individual resonance of bells. 

Throughout history, bell towers accompanied churches, civic centers, and town halls, as these structures were most often found at the city center and therefore were accessible to the greatest number of people. Tower bells announced the time, significant occasions, or cause for alarm. The higher the tower, the further the ringing could be heard – and the greater the prestige. Rising above parks, universities, and memorials, bell towers continue to be a focal point for community activity. 

Image: The third-tallest bell-and-clock tower in the world, Sather Tower at the University of California, Berkeley, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

Most bell towers have between one and five bells, but a single tower might hold dozens. A set of six, eight, ten or twelve bells can be rung in a traditional manner called change ringing. Harmonically-tuned carillons of more than 23 bells can play beloved melodies across rooftops.

Tower bells may be chimed to call the faithful to worship, tolled for funerals, struck on the hour or quarter-hour, sounded in case of fire, or rung to warn ships of coastal hazards (lighthouse bells were often installed as a counter to dense fog). No matter their purpose, tower bells still find a place in a modern society because of their ability to stir the human soul.

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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