11th May 2016

Ringing themes

Ringing publicity is often about a specific event or performance, but it often helps to include some background information about ringing as well as the immediate facts. That is especially true if you are writing an article, or hoping to encourage an editor to run a longer article or programme on ringing, not just a news item. What you include, and how much, will depend on the individual situation so you will need to pick and choose.

There are many sources of information about many aspects of ringing. This page provides some short descriptions on a number of themes, which you are free to copy and adapt if you wish.

The number of themes and their content may be expanded later, so ‘watch this space’.

Skilled activity

Bellringing is a team activity that requires physical coordination and a sense of rhythm. The bells swing full circle (mouth up to mouth up) and each bell is controlled to a precise rhythm by the actions of the ringer on the end of the bellrope. Bells are quite heavy (typically with weights between that of a motorbike and a small car) but they can be controlled with modest effort because of the special way they are hung. Ringing is about technique and finesse, not about brute force. A good ringer adapts to the feel and behaviour of individual bells and responds to their natural rhythm, ringing them with a minimum of effort.

The timing is controlled by swinging the bell slightly higher (slower) or less high (quicker). This is essential to strike the bells in orderly sequences. Skilful ringers can achieve a precision of a few hundredths of a second.

In change ringing the bells sound in continually different orders according to the rules of a ‘method’. There is no ‘music’, even in performances lasting several hours, so everything is done from memory. Ringers memorise methods in verbal or diagrammatic form. While ringing they translate that to determine their bell’s successive places in the sequence, and then execute the physical actions to move it to each place. Most ringers use ‘ropesight’ to see how the other bells are fitting around them – to confirm what they are doing, or to recover from any mistakes.

The conductor memorises the composition – a list of places at which to make a ‘call’ that switches the ringing onto a different track.

It takes a while to learn to ring a bell competently but the rewards for success are correspondingly great. There is no direct equivalent of the unique combination of skills and the corresponding satisfaction of ringing. Controlling the bell combines skills similar to controlling a bike (but with more weight), with the dynamic precision of a sport like tennis, and the whole body rhythmic experience has similarities with ballroom dancing. Ringing is a collective performance, like playing in an orchestra, where performers rely on each other.

The mental experience of ringing has no direct equivalent in other music or sport. Memorising methods is a bit like formation dancing but far more complex, but the translation between conceptual position and time of action is unique. Combining all these skills can give a feeling of effortless control, and being ‘part of the music’.

Change ringing

Change ringing is a systematic way of continually varying the order in which bells sound. Its unique quality stems from the physical constraints imposed by swinging bells – no bell may move more than one place at any one time. So a bell ringing 3rd on one row (sequence) may ring 2nd, 3rd or 4th in the following sequence, but not in any other place. The practical effect is that the ‘change’ between one row and the next may include adjacent pairs swapping places and bells staying in the same place, but nothing else. Despite that apparently severe limitation, there are still endless possibilities for what can be achieved by ringing changes one after another.

Ever since change ringing evolved in the late sixteenth century ringers have sought systematic ways to ring many different rows (sequences) without any repetition. The ways in which this can be achieved are rooted in mathematics, though most ringers are unaware of the theory in the same way that many singers are unaware of musical theory. Ringers were using the concepts of Group Theory (although they weren’t aware of it) 150 years before mathematicians formalised it.

A ‘method’ is a systematic way to generate many different rows by repeating a simple sequence of changes. The simplest is a plain hunt, where each bell progressively works its way from first to last place and back again, with each starting at a different point in the cycle. Two changes alternate, one swapping all adjacent pairs and the other swapping all pairs except the bells ringing first and last. On four bells this pair of changes can be repeated four times, giving a sequence of eight rows. On six bells it repeats six times, giving twelve rows, and so on.

Methods vary enormously in complexity. With more complex methods, ringers learn a set of rules or a pattern, so that once started the ringing will proceed to its end with no further instruction or ‘music’. Typically such a ‘plain course’ lasts a few minutes but for more complex methods and with more bells it may last up to 20 minutes.

Ringing performances

In routine ringing, both practices and for services, ringers take turns to ring in different ‘touches’ lasting five to ten minutes each. There are usually more ringers than bells, and with a range of abilities present different touches rung may be more or less difficult. A touch may be a ‘plain course’ of a method, which is rung from start to finish with no calls, or it may include calls to alter the course of ringing, for effect or to extend the length.

Longer performances have a pre-arranged band with one ringer per bell. The most common is a quarter peal, of which around 13,000 are rung each year. Less common, but the ‘gold standard’, is a peal of which around 5,000 are rung each year. Typically a peal takes around three hours but on light bells they are shorter and on heavy bells they are longer.

Ringing music

Change ringing is a special form of music quite different from conventional tunes, with a fascination of its own. See these articles on the music of ringing .

Sacred vs Secular

Bells were first introduced into monasteries and churches for religious use, but as churches acquired more bells during the Middle Ages they were also used for secular purposes. The bells in the church tower were the only practical means of long range mass communication. Bells performed utilitarian functions like raising an alarm, sounding the curfew or signalling the start of a market, and they made a joyful noise on occasions of public rejoicing for a wide range of national and local events – royal visits, military victories, the squire’s homecoming, weddings and so on. The custom of ringing bells in orderly sequences, from which change ringing evolved, grew out of this secular ringing, which as well as being a public entertainment took on many of the characteristics of a sport.

During the Reformation, the Puritans tried to suppress ringing along with many other forms of sport, all of which pushed ringers and the Church further apart. Fortunately they were organised into societies that were more or less autonomous, and the public had grown to like bellringing, both of which helped ringing to survive during this period. Things improved after the Restoration, and ringing thrived. But it remained largely independent of the Church for another couple of hundred years, until well into the nineteenth century.

By the nineteenth century ringers had a poor reputation (maybe not entirely deserved) and the Church was more hostile to them. Following the ‘Oxford Movement’ which reformed many aspects of the Anglican Church, a group of ringing clergy led what became known as Belfry Reform during the latter half of the century. In return for appropriate behaviour and attendance at services, ringers were welcomed as church workers and encouraged to ring for services, something that had probably not happened before.

The reforming Victorian clergy strongly promoted change ringing (as opposed to just ringing Rounds) despite the fact that it had evolved as a secular sport. That, and the network of ringing societies that they founded gave ringing a huge boost – as a hobby, not just ringing for services.

Modern ringing remains closely associated with the church, and almost all ringers regularly ring for services. But ringing retains its independent identity as a skilled art form and hobby in its own right, with its own sense of community and heritage.

The ringing community

There are around 40,000 active ringers worldwide who ring in the English style. They come from all walks of life. Ringing is a lifelong activity. Many ringers learn in their teens but some have learnt as young as five and some in retirement. Ringers often continue ringing into their eighties and nineties.

Most ringers belong to one of around seventy territorial ringing societies. Some also belong to a university or professional society, and maybe one of the two historic societies: The Ancient Society of College Youths or the Royal Society of Cumberland Youths. All ringers are represented via their ringing society by the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers.

Becoming a ringer is like joining an extended network of ready made friends. When ringers travel to other places they are almost universally welcomed by other ringers anywhere in the world and invited to ring with them.

Cultural significance of bells

Bells are the loudest of musical instruments, and are found around the world. Bells have existed for thousands of years though not always in the familiar shape that we associate with a bell. Some cultures that don’t have hollow metal bells use large resonant objects made of wood or other material that are struck to perform similar cultural functions. The sound of bells is deeply rooted in many cultures around the world in both religious and cultural contexts. There seems to be something special about the sound of bells that is ingrained in human consciousness.

Bells are rung many different ways in different cultures. For example there are different ringing traditions in Russia, regions of Italy (notably around Verona and around Bologna), the Low Countries, much of the rest of continental Europe, and in Britain.

In England and some other parts of the English speaking world the unique sound of English style ringing, especially change ringing, is embedded in the public consciousness, and it is instantly recognised – so much so that clips of ringing are used as a sound effect in plays, etc to signal a wedding, or blended with bird sing to signal rural tranquility.

Other themese

Other themes that may be added include:

  • Early development of ringing
  • The heritage of ringing

Watch this space.

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