Change ringing

Change ringing is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns called "changes". It differs from many other forms of campanology (such as carillon ringing) in that no attempt is made to produce a conventional melody.

Today, change ringing can be found all over the world, performed in a variety of media; but it remains most popular in the context where, in the 17th century, it developed: English church towers. These typically contain a few large bells rigged to swing freely: a ring of bells. The considerable inertias involved mean that each bell usually requires its own ringer. Thus, contrasted with a carillon, in which a large number of bells are struck by hammers, all tied in to a central framework so that one carilloneur can control them all, a set of such bells is comparatively unwieldy— hence the emergence of permutations rather than melody as an organizing principle.

The popularity of "The Exercise" (as it is sometimes known) reflects its opportunities for physical recreation, intellectual stimulation, aesthetic enjoyment, and social camaraderie.

The mechanics of change ringing on tower bells

Today some towers have as many as sixteen bells which can be rung together; six or eight bells are more common for the average church. The bell highest in pitch is known as the treble and the bell lowest in pitch the tenor. For convenience, the bells are referred to by number, with the treble being number 1 and the other bells numbered by their pitch — 2,3,4, etc. — sequentially down the scale. (This system often seems counterintuitive to musicians, who are used to a numbering which ascends along with pitch.) The bells are usually tuned to a diatonic major scale, with the tenor bell being the tonic (or key) note of the scale. Some towers contain additional bells which are used to allow different subsets of the full number to be rung, still to a diatonic scale. For instance, many 12-bell towers have a "flat sixth", which if rung instead of the normal number 6 bell allows 2 to 9 to be rung as light diatonic octave, other variations are also possible.

The bells in a tower reside in the bell chamber usually with louvred windows to enable the sound to escape. The bells are mounted within a bellframe of steel or wood. Each bell is suspended from a headstock, which in turn is connected to the bellframe by bearings, allowing the bell to rotate through just over 360 degrees; the headstock is fitted with a wooden wheel to which a rope is attached and around which the rope wraps and unwraps as the bell rotates backwards and forwards. Prior to a session of ringing the bell sits poised upside-down until it is rung.

Below the bell chamber there may be one or more sound chambers, through which the rope will pass before it drops into the ringing chamber or room. Typically, the rope's length will be such that it falls close to or to the floor of the ringing chamber. About 4 feet from the floor, the rope will have a woollen grip called the sally (usually around 4ft long) whilst the lower end of the rope will be doubled over to form an easily held tail-end.

The bellringers typically stand in a circle around the ringing chamber, each managing one rope. To ring the bell, the ringer will first pull the sally towards the floor, upsetting the bell's balance and causing it to swing on its bearings. The bell will swing around approximately 360 degrees, winding the rope onto its wheel so that the sally is lifted towards the ceiling. This is the "handstroke". After a controlled pause with the bell on or just over its balancing point, the ringer will pull the tail-end towards the floor, causing the bell to swing back towards its original position. As the sally returns to its starting point, the ringer will catch it to pause the bell at its balance position. This is the "backstroke".

During each swing, the clapper inside the bell will strike the soundbow, making the bell sound once. In change ringing, it is necessary to time the swing so that this strike occurs with precise timing. To ring "quickly", the bell must not complete the full 360 degrees before swinging back in the opposite direction, while ringing "slowly" means the ringer must wait with the bell held at the balance, before allowing it to swing back. To achieve this, the ringer must work with the bell's momentum, applying just the right amount of force during the pull that the bell swings as far as required and no further. Although ringing certainly involves some physical exertion, ringers rely more on this practised skill than mere brute force; after all, even small bells may be as heavy as the people ringing them, and can only be rung at all because they are well-balanced in their frames. The heaviest bell hung for full-circle ringing is in Liverpool Cathedral and weighs over four imperial tons (over four metric tonnes) . Despite this colossal weight, it can be safely rung by one (experienced) ringer. (While heavier bells exist — for example Big Ben — they are generally only chimed, either by swinging the bell slightly or using a mechanical hammer.)


Change ringing can also be carried out on handbells (small bells, generally weighing only a few hundred grams). This was particularly common during the Second World War when church bells often were not allowed to be rung (as to do so would have signified an invasion); although the ringers returned to the towers as soon as the war was over, for a number of years thereafter handbell ringing retained great popularity.

When used for practice by tower ringers, each ringer typically handles one bell, just as in the tower. But change ringing on handbells is today quite popular in its own right; and in that context the relevant physical realities of handbells (compared with tower bells) have their effect— on handbells each ringer usually handles two bells (adding considerably to the mental challenge). Likewise, a set of handbells often contains considerably more bells than towers ever do— sometimes several octaves' worth. Today many record-length peals, including the longest peal ever rung, come from handbell ringers.

Typically, change ringers using handbells sit or stand in a circle (like tower ringers). The towerbell terms of handstroke and backstroke are retained, referring to an upwards and downwards ring of the bell respectively; and as in towers, the ringing proceeds in alternate rows of handstroke and backstroke.

There is, however, a second school of change ringing on handbells, which uses a technique called 'lapping', or 'cross and stretch': the ringers stand or sit in a straight line at a single convenient table, from which they pick up a bell each time they ring it; and to which they thereupon return it. But as the sequence of the bells is permuted the ringers physically swap the bells accordingly; the bells actually move up and down the table and each row is rung in strict sequence from right to left. A ringer in cross and stretch thus does not have responsibility for his or her own personal bell but handles each as it comes.

Permuting the bells

The simplest way to use a set of bells is ringing rounds, which is sounding the bells repeatedly in sequence from treble to tenor: 1, 2, 3, etc.. (Musicians will recognise this as a portion of a descending scale.) Ringers typically start with rounds and then begin to vary the bells' order, moving on to a series of distinct rows. Each row (or change) is a specific permutation of the bells (for example 123456 or 531246) — that is to say, it includes each bell rung once and only once, the difference from row to row being the order of the bells.

In call change ringing each row is specifically called for: one ringer (the conductor) tells the others how to swap their bells' places from row. In method ringing, by contrast, the ringers have learned a "method" — an algorithm to govern the swaps which they can thus perform on their own like clockwork; a conductor's intervention is needed only periodically, when a slight variation in the pattern is necessary, or to correct errors by the ringers.

Call change ringing

Most ringers begin their ringing career with call change ringing; they can thus concentrate on learning the physical skills needed to handle their bells without needing to worry about methods. There are also many towers where experienced ringers practise call change ringing as an art in its own right (and even exclusively), particularly in the English county of Devon.

Calls are made with spoken commands such as "X to Y" or "X and Y" or "X after Y", in which X and Y refer to two of the bells by their numbers (not by their positions in the row); such a call signifies that after the call a pair of bells will have swapped, resulting in X following Y. However, there are several different ways of representing any given change. By far the most common two are known as "calling up" and "calling down"; each has its merits and inconveniences, but generally any given tower will consistently use one system in preference to the other.

As an example, consider the following sequence of rows, and the calls a conductor would use to evoke them:

Row Conductor's intent Call, if calling Up Call, if calling Down
1,2,3,4,5,6 to swap bells 2 and 3 "2 to 3" "3 to Treble"
1,3,2,4,5,6 to swap bells 4 and 5 "4 to 5" "5 to 2"
1,3,2,5,4,6 to swap bells 2 and 5 "2 to 5" "5 to 3"
1,3,5,2,4,6 to swap bells 1 and 3 "1 to 3" "3 to lead"

Thus it can be seen how these two ways of calling differ:

  • In calling up, the two bells named are already neighbours in the row, with the second-named previously following the first-named. As a result of the call, these two bells swap position; thereafter the first-named bell follows its erstwhile successor (having moved one spot 'upwards' (backward) to a position nearer the end of the change); the second-named has meanwhile moved 'downwards' (forward) to a position nearer the start of the change. In short, the call literally consists of an instruction that the first-named bell move up (i.e. back away from the lead).
  • In calling down, by contrast, the first-named bell is instructed to move down (i.e. forwards, towards the lead). The second bell named, the one which the first-named bell is to follow, does not alter its place in the row: it still immediately precedes the swapping pair. The bell which swaps with the one moving down towards lead, on the other hand, is not itself named; its ringer must simply realize that his or her bell must move up to accommodate the first-named bell.

In both cases, the ringer of the bell immediately above the swapping pair must also be alert, as this bell will be following a new bell after the swap. Rarer forms of call- change calling may: name just one of the moving bells, call the moving bell by position rather than number, or call out the full change.

Method ringing

Method ringing is what many people mean by change ringing. Thanks to it, ringers can spend hours ringing thousands upon thousands of unique changes with no outside direction or coordination. They do not have to memorize impossible quantities of data; nor do they attempt to read it all off some dizzying sheet of numbers. Rather, they are all following a method, a relatively simple pattern they have learnt to direct them from row to row.

Since a ringer is responsible for one bell, learning a method consists mainly of memorizing how that bell changes position from row to row; when it advances towards the beginning ("goes down to the front") or when it retreats towards the end ("goes up to the back"). Often ringers study a blueline, a graphical representation of a bell's course from row to row according to a particular method. The methods are simple enough to memorize and so are relatively limited in length; but taken in conjunction with slight standard variations the ringers know to make at regular breaking points, a more robust algorithm is formed. From time to time and usually when the treble is leading (that is when bell number 1 is ringing first), a conductor calls out the need for another variation by calling "bob" or "single".

For some people, the ultimate goal of this system is to ring all the permutations, to ring a tower's bells in every possible order without repeating — what is called an "extent" (or sometimes, formerly, a "full peal"). The feasibility of this depends on how many bells are involved: if a tower has n bells, they will have n! (read factorial) possible permutations, a number that becomes quite large as n grows. For example, while six bells have 720 permutations, 8 bells have 40,320; furthermore, 10! = 3,628,800, and 12! = 479,001,600. Estimating two seconds for each change (a reasonable pace), we find that while an extent on 6 bells can be accomplished in half an hour, a full peal on 8 bells should take nearly twenty-two and a half hours. (When in 1963 ringers in Loughborough became the first and only in history to achieve this feat on tower bells, it actually took them just under 18 hours.) An extent on 12 bells would take over thirty years!

Since extents are obviously not always practicable, ringers more often undertake shorter performances. Such ringing starts and ends with rounds, having meanwhile visited only a subset of the available permutations; but trueness is still considered essential — no row can ever be repeated; to do so would make the ringing false. A peal is an extended performance; it must last at least 5000 changes on eight or more bells and at least 5040 on seven or fewer bells (5040 being 7!, the length of a full extent on seven). A performance of 1250 (on 8 or more) or 1260 (on 7 or fewer) changes likewise makes a quarter peal (quarter for short); a peal or a quarter tends to last about three hours or 45 minutes, respectively.

History and modern culture of change ringing

Change ringing as we know it today emerged in England in the 17th century. To that era we can trace the origins of the earliest ringing societies, such as the Lincoln Cathedral Guild, which claims to date to 1612 or the Antient Society of Ringers of St Stephen in Bristol which was founded in 1620 and lasted as a ringing society until the late 19th century.The recreation began to flourish in earnest in the Restoration era; an important milestone in the development of method ringing as a careful science was the 1668 publication by Richard Duckworth and Fabian Stedman of their book Tintinnalogia, which promised in its subtitle to lay down "plain and easie Rules for Ringing all sorts of Plain Changes." Stedman followed this in 1677 with another famous early guide, Campanalogia.

Throughout the years since, the group theoretical underpinnings of change ringing have been pursued by mathematicians. Bells have been installed in towers around the world and many rings in the British Isles have been augmented to ten, twelve, fourteen, or even sixteen bells. Today change ringing is, particularly in England, a popular and commonplace sound, often issuing from a church tower before or after a service or wedding. While on these everyday occasions the ringers must usually content themselves with shorter "touches," each lasting a few minutes, for special occasions they often attempt a quarter-peal or peal, lasting approximately 45 minutes or three hours respectively. If a peal attempt succeeds, towers sometimes mark the occasion with a peal board mounted on the wall of the ringing chamber; at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich there is one documenting what is generally considered to be the first true peal: 5040 changes of Plain Bob Triples (a method still popular today), rung 2 May 1715. Today over 4000 peals are rung each year.

Dorothy L. Sayers's mystery novel The Nine Tailors is famous for the central part played by change ringing. Much of the action centres on a bell tower and the peals rung in it, and to draw the reader in Sayers takes care to explain change ringing and analyze its improbable popularity; quotations from the book are popular with ringers. Moreover, the entire book is infused with an air of change ringing to the extent that her chapter titles all employ campanological terminology; and indeed, one of the book's conceits is that it is a sort of multi-part peal.

Organization and extent

The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, founded in 1891, is dedicated to representing change ringers around the world. Most regional and local ringing guilds are affilitated with the council. Its journal, the Ringing World, has been published weekly since 1911; in addition to news and features relating to bellringing and the bellringing community, it publishes records of achievements such as peals and quarter-peals. Ringers generally adhere to the Council's rules and definitions governing change ringing.

The Central Council, by means of its peal records, also keeps track of record length peals, both on tower bells and handbells. (The record for tower bells remains the 1963 Loughborough extent of Plain Bob Major (40,320 changes); for handbells it was set in 2007 in Willingham, Cambridgeshire, with 72,000 changes of 100 different Treble Dodging Minor methods, taking just over 24 hours to ring ) More importantly, perhaps, along with keeping track of the first peal ever rung in a method, the Central Council controls the naming of new methods: it generally allows the first band to ring a method to name it.

Much ringing is carried out by bands of ringers meeting at their local tower to ring its bells. For the sake of variety, though, many ringers like to take occasional trips to make a tower grab ringing the bells of a less familiar tower. The setting, the church architecture, the chance to ring more bells than usual, the bells' unique tone, their ease or difficulty of ringing, and sometimes even the unusual means of accessing the ringing chamber can all be part of the attraction. The traditional means of finding bell towers, and still the most popular way today, is the book (and now internet database) Dove's Guide for Church Bell Ringers.

As of April 2007, that guide lists 5750 ringable rings of bells in England, 181 in Wales, 37 in Ireland, 20 in Scotland, 10 in the Channel Islands, 2 in the Isle of Man and a further 123 towers worldwide with bells hung for full circle ringing, mainly in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Named changes

Mathematical abstraction though each row may be, some rows do have a musical or melodic meaning to the listener. Over the years, a number of these have acquired names — they are named changes. Both the conductors directing call-change ringing and the composers coming up with plans for a bout of method ringing sometimes like to work their favourite named changes in. The table below lists some popular named changes on eight bells; many of these names are also applicable by extension on more or fewer bells.

Change Name
12345678 () Rounds
87654321 () Back rounds or Reverse Rounds
13572468 () Queens (an apocryphal story says it appealed to Elizabeth I)
15263748 () Tittums (so named because of the ti-tum ti-tum sound it makes)

Such names are often humorous; for example, the sequence 14235 on five bells is called weasels because it is the tune of the refrain to the children's song Pop Goes the Weasel.

You can find a full list of Called changes at MAW Call Change Collection


Although neither call change nor method ringing produces conventional tunes, it is still the aim of the ringers to produce a pleasant sound. One of the most important aspects of this is good striking — not only should the bells never clash by sounding at the same moment, the bells should sound to a perfect rhythm, tapping out a steady beat.

It is the custom to leave a pause of one beat after every alternate row, i.e. after the ringing of each ‘backstroke’ row. This is called 'open handstroke' ringing (or open handstroke leading). In parts of Devon and Yorkshire, this custom is not followed, instead the bells tap steadily without pause.

Striking competitions are held where various bands of ringers attempt to ring with their best striking. They are judged on their number of faults (striking errors); the band with the least number of faults wins. These competitions are organized on regional and national levels, being particularly popular among the call-change ringers of Devon. At the annual National 12 Bell Striking Contest the bands are ringing methods and producing a different change approximately every 2.5 seconds, with a gap between bells of 0.21 seconds. To an expert ringer's ear at this level of competition a variation of a tenth of this would be discernible as a striking fault.

Change ringing in literature

British author Dorothy Sayers' mystery novel The Nine Tailors (1934) contains a great deal of information on change-ringing. Her fictional detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, demonstrates his skill at ringing the changes, and the solution to the central puzzle of the book rests in part upon the patterns of change ringing.



  • Bells and Bellringing, a presentation prepared by the Publications Committee of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers

See also

External links

Search another word or see truenesson Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature