What is Change Ringing?
In a short sentence: English Change ringing is a specific style of bellringing that originated in the 17th Century in the United Kingdom, and has been developing ever since.
What kind of songs or tunes do you ring? Do you have performances?
Because of the mechanics of bells hung for change ringing, we don't ring songs or tunes; instead we ring mathematical patterns on the bells. Different patterns, known as methods, vary wildly in simplicity and complexity, but one thing they all have in common is that they are designed so the bells are ringing mathematical permutations of the bells. The closest we come to a 'performance' is what is known as a Peal, which requires a minimum of 5,040 unique permutations - or 7! (factorial) - which typically takes 3 hours or longer of continuous ringing.
How do you ring a bell?
A bell, typically weighing between 500 - 3,000 lbs, is attached to a wood piece called the headstock, which is attached to a wheel, which allows the bell to swing a full 360°. A rope goes around the wheel and falls down to the ringing chamber - usually through the floor or an intermediate chamber - where one person stands at the end to pull the end of the rope.
You'll notice that there are 2 components - pulling red section, called 'the sally,' at the same height as your chest, known as the handstroke, and pulling the tail end above your head, known as the backstroke.
If I'm walking around a church or university and hear bells ringing, is that change ringing?
In the United States - along with the rest of North America - it's more likely to be a carillon. There are less than 50 towers with bells hung for change ringing in the U.S., but thousands of caillons, along with churches with one bell hung for chiming. You will likely be able to tell if it's change ringing by process of eliminination - if it's a song or tune, it's probably a carillon, if you're hearing one pitch over and over again, it's a bell chiming, if there are many pitches in seeminly random order, it may be change ringing. The full list of North American Change Ringing towers can be found on the North American Guild website.
Why do we ring?
Change ringing is an engaging, multi-faceted pastime that combines many different elements:
- Teamwork: Ringers work together to ring a set of bells as precisely and skilfully as possible.
- Mental & Physical Challenge: Ringing involves simulataneously hearing the bells, seeing when the other ringers are pulling their ropes, controlling a heavy moving object, which you can't see, by feeling what your bell is doing through your rope, recalling from memory the method currently being rung, and combining all these inputs to strike your bell in the correct place. Some refer to peal ringing as a mental marathon.
- Music & Rhythm: Change ringers seek out musical patterns ('methods') to ring, and aim to ring these methods with a very accurate beat.
- Math: Change ringing is based on the principle of permutations, which means that once the bells ring in a particular order (i.e. a given permutation or 'row'), that row won't be rung again. Compositions of methods rotate the bells in different ways, and the way you rotate the bells will naturally change the permutations of the bells you generate. This all relates to a branch of math called group theory.
- History: Change ringing dates back several centuries, and the historic art form is associated with many historical and cultural events - such as royal weddings - particularly in England.
- Travel: There are over 7,000 change ringing towers across the world, and ringers often arrange visits to other towers to ring on different bells, which allows you to travel to and visit beautiful places.
- A Lifelong Passion: Change ringing is a grand enough challenge to keep you entertained for an entire lifetime. Many ringers start in their teens and twenties, and are still ringing in their 70s and 80s. There is always another aspect of change ringing that you can work on improving. Similarly, ringing is a social activity, a source of lifelong friendships, and it's not uncommon for change ringers to meet their future spouses in the bell tower!
Can I learn how to ring?
Absolutely! Almost anyone can be a bell ringer. While every learner progresses at a different rate, ringers come from all walks of life, backgrounds, and ages. We talk about bells weighing hundreds of pounds, but with proper technique is not physically demanding. Ringers are a very welcoming crowd, simply reach out to your local tower to join!
If the above has piqued your interest and you would like to find out more, visit us! And, if you like, have a lesson with a volunteer instructor. You can also learn more about ringing by visiting our Master Class page.
More information on change ringing can also be found on the website of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers.
If you want to watch a real-life video, see this YouTube clip.