Created | Updated Jun 24, 2014
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I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.
- William Shakespeare, Macbeth
People have used bells for thousands of years for signalling, for celebration and for marking solemn occasions. Bells are considered important. They are given names and meaningful inscriptions. They are blessed. They even have a special word for the practice of ringing them: campanology.
Uses of Bells
Bells can be used for many different purposes:
- For signalling. Examples include a clock chiming the hour, the time signals on board ships in the old days, and a church bell ringing to signal that a religious service is about to begin. Up to about 1980, telephones rang a bell rather than using an electronic beeper - and we still talk about ringing someone on the telephone.
- As a warning. Examples are the bells on fire engines (replaced recently by electronic sirens), alarm bells, and the ancient practice of ringing the bells of the town to warn of invaders.
- To mark a significant event: bells are rung at weddings, celebrations and funerals. Peals of bells are rung to mark the arrival of a new year. In Lloyd's of London, the Lutine Bell was traditionally rung once when an insured ship was lost, and twice when a ship in danger was recovered. Nowadays its use is mainly ceremonial.
- To make music. A number of bells together can play a tune such as the well-known 'Westminster Chimes' or, in more elaborate set-ups, complete musical performances.
Construction, Acoustics and Tuning
Bells are normally made of metal, although wood, stone, crystal glass and terracotta have occasionally been used in the past. For large bells, bronze, iron or steel are usually the preferred metals. The biggest bells are nearly always bronze. Smaller bells are often made of brass. Despite the words of the Christmas song, bells are not made of silver.
The normal shape of bells in the western world is so well-known that there is no name for it other than 'bell-shaped'. Nevertheless, an attempt will be made to describe it here. The body of the bell is a truncated cone, that is, a cone with the top cut off. Onto the top of this is attached a portion of a sphere, to give a rounded top. At the base, the cone widens out even more to make the 'mouth' or 'lip' of the bell.
Long ago, bells were made by taking plates of metal and hammering them together, but about 2,000 years ago it was found that a better tone could be got by casting them. That is, molten metal is poured into a bell-shaped mould. If the bell is to bear an inscription, this is impressed into the mould before casting. When the bell has cooled, it is polished.
The next stage is to tune the bell. This is done by rotating it on a turntable, mouth upwards, and shaving small amounts of metal off it. The sound of the bell is tested during this process to make sure it sounds right.
The sound from a bell consists of a number of different notes mixed together, known as overtones or partials. If the bell is the right shape, these overtones are in tune with the fundamental note. The overtones can be adjusted slightly during the tuning process. The most important three notes that the bell produces are the strike note, which is the first sound you hear when the bell is struck, the hum note which is the one that carries on longest, and the first overtone. Ideally, the hum note should be an octave lower than the strike note. Throughout history, the first overtone was tuned to a note a minor third higher than the strike note, but in the last twenty years or so, a new shape and tuning technique was invented in the Netherlands which allows the first overtone to be a major third above the strike note, giving a different sound.
Many bells crack during cooling or when they are struck. If the crack is small, the bell will still function with a deterioration in tone, but a big crack makes the bell unusable. The bell can be recycled by being recast - this means that a new bell is created by melting down the old bell.
Bell Foundries in the United Kingdom
The biggest bell foundry in the world is John Taylor Bell Founders in Loughborough, Leicestershire, England. Run by the Taylor family, it has been making bells in or near Loughborough since the 14th Century. The biggest bell in England, Great Paul, the bass bell of St Paul's Cathedral, London, was made here in 1881. There is a museum of bells, the only one of its kind in the United Kingdom.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London is not quite as large, but is at least as famous. Bells produced here include Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.
Chimes, Carillons and Mechanical Clocks
If four or more bells are present together, it is possible to play tunes on them. Up to 22 bells is known as a chime, while 23 or more are known as a carillon. These can be operated manually or can be controlled by a mechanism. Such mechanically-controlled bells are very popular in the Netherlands and Belgium. The tower at Brugge (Bruges), Belgium, has 47 bells controlled by a giant machine similar to that in a music box. As well as playing long tunes every hour, musical performances are given regularly by a musician operating a keyboard. The Dom in Utrecht, Netherlands, goes further, with 50 bells controlled by a mechanism that was built in 1666.
The clock tower in Westminster, London, England is famous for chiming on the quarter-hour with a tune which is known as the 'Westminster Chimes'. Many other clocks around the world have copied this and use the same tune. But the original clock to play this tune is not in Westminster but in Cambridge, England, on the tower of Great St Mary's church. The tune is supposed to have been written by William Crotch in 1793, at the age of 18. The first four notes are supposedly based on a theme from Handel's aria 'I know that my redeemer liveth'.
In England, sets of bells are rung in sequences known as changes. The object is to sound each of the bells in a sequence, with no two sequences having the same order of notes. For change ringing, the exact timing of the ringing of the bells is important, so the bells are mounted in such a way that they can be 'parked' vertically with the mouth facing upwards. This allows the bell to start ringing at a particular time, and a delay can be introduced into the sequence by returning the bell to the parked position, allowing bells to swap position in a sequence.
Change-ringing is less popular outside of Great Britain, but is practised sporadically in all of the countries where England once had a say, including the United States and Ireland.
In the 19th Century in England, change ringers needed a way of practising their changes without the complication of actually ringing the bells. They developed a special type of handbell for the purpose. This has a handle at one end and a spring-loaded clapper. Flicking the handbell downwards causes it to ring once.
Of course, it was immediately recognised that music could be played on a set of these bells and the handbell choir was born. Each player is generally responsible for two notes in the music, including any accidentals (sharps and flats), so while they normally hold two handbells, in some performances they may have to manage as many as five bells, swapping between them as they play.
This type of music became very popular in America and it is estimated that there are more than 40,000 handbell choirs in the United States.
Some Famous Bells
This is the biggest bell ever cast. It is to be found in the Kremlin, the historic citadel of Moscow. Cast in 1733-35, this monster is definitely in the super-heavyweight class, tipping the scales at 210 tons. It is 20 feet tall and 22 feet in diameter at the mouth.
Unfortunately, the Tsar-Bell was never rung. In 1737, before the bell had even been hung, there was a fire in the Kremlin and the bell got very hot. When they poured water on it to cool it, a crack formed and an 11.5-ton piece broke off, making the bell useless.
Big Ben is the bell in the Clock Tower at the Houses of Parliament in London. It is connected to the clock and is used to chime the hour. Cast in 1858, it weighs 13.5 tons, is 7 feet 6 inches high and has a diameter at the mouth of 9 feet.
The bell was conceived right from the start as a time signal for all the nation. An electric relay brought its sound to the observatory in Greenwich for synchronisation with the various timepieces there. With the invention of radio, and subsequently television, the time signal has been broadcast to the nation at various times of the day.
The bell is named after Sir Benjamin Hall, a rather large politician who gave a long-winded speech on the subject of naming the bell. Somebody suggested that they should just call the bell 'Big Ben' and be done with it - the name stuck.
Big Ben cracked after only two months in operation. This is because the clockmaker supplied a hammer more than twice the maximum size recommended by the bell founder. The crack is not serious enough to prevent the bell from sounding, but it was necessary to fit a lighter hammer and to turn the bell by an eighth of a turn. Experts say that the tone of the bell has suffered as a result of the crack.
The Liberty Bell
The Liberty Bell, weighing in at just under a ton, is small compared with Big Ben or the Tsar-Bell, but it is an important symbol of liberty in the United States. Cast in 1753, it was the bell of the Pennsylvania State House1 and was rung for solemn occasions such as the coronation of King George III. The bell was rung on 8 July, 1776 to summon people to a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. The inscription on the bell is taken from the Book of Leviticus and reads 'Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof'. Because of these facts, the bell was adopted in about 1830 as a symbol of America's struggle against oppression and was given the name 'Liberty Bell'. Many legends have grown up around it, such as that it was rung on 4 July, 1776 to celebrate the approval by Congress of the Declaration of Independence, which is definitely not true. The story that the bell cracked beyond repair on George Washington's Birthday in 1846 seems to be true.
Ancient Chinese Bells
Bells have been used in China for at least 3,000 years. For the first millennium or so, Chinese bells were quite different in shape to modern bells. They had an oval cross-section rather than being circular, and instead of a smooth outer surface, they had lumps of metal sticking out at strange places. These were not decorative; they played a crucial role in damping certain vibrations and encouraging others.
These bells had an amazing feature: they produced two different notes, depending on where they were struck! If struck on the 'flat' side, the bell would produce the basic note. If struck at a point about 45 degrees around the base of the bell, it would produce a note a minor third higher. What the Chinese had discovered was a way of sounding the overtones of the bell without sounding the fundamental note.
About 2,000 years ago, the secret of making these two-tone bells was lost, although Chinese bells continue to be made a different shape from bells of the western world. They lack the distinctive 'lip' of normal bells.
Bells On Board Ships
In the days before every sailor had a wristwatch, the ship's bell was used to signal the time to the crew, being rung every half-hour.
The day was divided into periods of four hours known as watches. These started with the First Watch at 8pm. Crew changes happened at the end of each watch. The Dogwatch, from 4pm to 8pm, was normally split into two two-hour watches to allow everybody a break to eat their main meal. The number of bells marked the number of half-hours since the start of the watch. To make counting the bells easier, there was a slight pause after each two strikes. Thus, if the sequence ended with a single bell, the sailor would know that it was half-past-something.
Normally '8 bells' marked the end of the watch. Originally, the 4-hour Dogwatch was treated the same as all the other watches, but in about 1800 in British ships, the bells in the dogwatch started to be sounded one, two, three, four, one, two, three, eight. Legend has it that this change was made as a result of a mutiny at the Nore Sandbank in the Thames Estuary in 1797. The signal for the mutiny was five bells in the dogwatch. Because of the change in practice, that particular signal will never be given again. It is possible, however, that the change had more to do with the scheduling of the two two-hour watches and the mundane practice of eating dinner.
Bells are normally situated in a bell tower which is part of a building, whether it be a church or a state house. When the bells are in a tower which is separate from the building, this tower is known as a campanile. This is particularly common in Italy.
Probably the most famous campanile is the one known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Originally built as the campanile to the cathedral, the tower started to lean due to poor foundations even before it had been completed. Now, nearly a millennium later, modern engineering techniques have saved the tower so that it is finally stable, although still leaning.
There are many other uses of bells, too numerous to get more than a brief mention here:
- The school bell, which marks the beginning and, more importantly, the end of lessons
- The Buddhist mindfulness bell which is 'invited to ring' to make you more aware of your present surroundings
- Sleigh bells, immortalised in the Christmas song, 'Jingle Bells'
- The consecration bell, rung in Roman Catholic church masses at the most important point of the mass, the consecration of the bread and wine
- The exorcism bell, traditionally used along with book and candle in the rite for driving out demons from a possessed person
- Cow bells, which are hung round the necks of cows in high Alpine meadows, to help the farmer find the cow if it gets lost
- Plus... tubular bells. These orchestral bells were central to one of the best-selling pieces of progressive rock ever recorded.