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Bellringing is the art of ringing bells, either church bells or handbells. "Campanology" and "change-ringing" are other terms used to describe this pastime.

Mechanics of church bellringing

A bell tower in which bellringing takes place can contain up to sixteen bells, but towers with six or eight bells are most common. The bell highest in pitch is known as the treble, and the bell lowest in pitch known as the tenor. For convenience, the bells are numbered sequentially, with the treble being number 1. The bells are usually tuned to a diatonic major scale, with the tenor bell being the tonic (or key) note of the scale.

When bellringing, each person controls one bell via a rope. The rope has fabric over part of it, called the sally. The end of the rope is called the tail. The rope passes through a hole in the ceiling up into a chamber above (the bell-chamber) that contains the bells themselves. The bells are mounted on wooden wheels around which the rope is wrapped. By pulling the rope, the ringer causes the bell to rotate through a 360 degree circle. This causes the clapper inside the bell to strike the soundbow, making the bell resonate. When the ringer wishes to stop ringing, the bell may be left in a mouth-upward position; this avoids the work necessary to ring up the bells for the next session.

Ringing involves a great deal of skill and is not a matter of brute force; this can be seen by the fact that the bell being rung is typically much heavier than the person ringing it. The heaviest bell hung for full-circle ringing is contained in Liverpool Cathedral and weighs over four tonnes. Despite this collossal weight, it can be safely rung by one (very experienced) ringer. While heavier bells exist (for example Big Ben) they are generally only chimed, either by swinging the bell slightly or using mechanical hammers.

History of bellringing

Bellringing began in England in the early part of the 17th century. The techniques used today are extremely similar to those developed at that time, with the only major innovations being the use of ball bearings to improve the ease of movement of the bells, and the introduction of Simpson tuning in the early 20th century to improve the intonation of the bells.

The first peal (a three-hour long bellringing performance) was rung on May 2nd, 1715 at St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, England, and was of the method Plain Bob Triples.

The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers is the representative body for all those who ring bells in the traditional English style around the world, and was founded in 1891. Today the Council represents 66 affiliated societies, which cover all parts of the British Isles as well as centres of ringing in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Italy.

The ringing community has its own weekly newspaper, the Ringing World, which is also the official journal of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Published weekly since 1911 it comprises articles relating to bellringing and the bellringing community, as well as publishing records of peals and quarter-peals. Peals and quarter-peals are the two major types of bellringing performances other than the ringing that takes place for Sunday services. A peal takes approximately three hours to complete, and a quarter-peal around 45 minutes.

Mathematics of bellringing

The simplest form of bellringing is ringing rounds, which is ringing the bells repeatedly in the order 1, 2, 3... Musicians will recognise this as a simple descending scale. All ringing performances start and end with rounds and comprise different rows being rung in the middle. A row is a specific permutation of the bells, for example 123456 or 531246. It is an important requirement of a bellringing performance that no row is repeated during the performance; when this is the case the performance is said to be true.

Performances involve changing the order the bells are rung in according to a certain algorithm or method. Methods are memorised by the ringers prior to the start of the ringing session, and can be expressed in place notation (a mathematical notation describing the different sequences sounded by the bells during the ringing). Typically however ringers memorise a so-called blue line, which is a graphical representation of the role taken by each bell during the ringing.

The simplest method is known as plain hunt. In this, the bells follow a "plaiting" pattern. The blue line for plain-hunting on six is shown below.


The 1st bell (the treble) is highlighted to show more clearly the path taken by that bell.

Other more complicated methods involve the bells following more complex patterns, including patterns known as dodges, points, fish-tails, and cats-ears.

For 6 bells (minor), a maximum of 720 changes is possible without repetition. For 7 bells (triples) 5,040 changes are possible, and for 12 bells (the appropriately-named maximus) 479,001,600 changes are possible. A peal on 6 or 7 bells consists of 5,040 changes, on 8 or more bells it consists of at least 5,000 changes.

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