change ringing

change ringing

"The art of change ringing is peculiar to the English, and, like most English peculiarities, unintelligible to the rest of the world. To the musical Belgian, for example, it appears that the proper thing to do with a carefully tuned ring of bells is to play a tune upon it. By the English campanologist ... the proper use of the bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations."

—Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors


Change ringing is the ringing of a set of bells in a precise relationship to one another to produce a pleasing sound. Bells are number 1, 2, 3, 4, 5... from lightest (highest-pitched) to heaviest. After each sequence, or round, the order of the bells is changed slightly in a predetermined way. With 5 bells, there are 5 × 4 × 3 × 2 × 1, or 120, possible changes, which take about 4 minutes to ring. With 6, 7, or 8 bells, the number of unique changes is 720, 5,040, and 40,320, respectively. To produce pleasing variations in the sound, bells are made to change places with adjacent bells in the row, for example:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
2 1 4 3 6 5 8 7


These rows are the musical notation of change ringing. No bell moves more than one place in the row at a time, although more than one pair may change in the same row. In order to ring a different row with each pull of the rope, ringers have devised methods for changing pairs in orderly ways. In ringing a method, the bells begin in rounds, ring changes according to the method, and return to rounds without repeating any row along the way. These place changes produce musical patterns, with the sounds of the bells weaving in and out.


Experienced ringers test and extend their abilities by ringing peals: 5,000 or more changes without breaks or repeating a row. Peals customarily last about three hours. The first peal was rung in England in 1715. Chiming bells (swinging them through a short arc using a rope and a lever) goes well back into the Middle Ages, but it wasn't until the seventeenth century that ringers developed the full wheel, which allowed enough control for orderly ringing. In 1668 Fabian Stedman published Tintinnalogia (The Art of Change Ringing), containing all the available information on systematic ringing. The theory of change ringing set forth by Stedman has been refined in later years but remains essentially unchanged today. Bells for change ringing are hung in stout frames that allow the bells to swing through 360°. Each bell is attached to a wooden wheel with a handmade rope running around it and takes about 2 seconds to rotate. The bells are arranged in the frame so their ropes hang in a circle in the ringing chamber below. Into each rope is woven a tuft of brightly colored wool (a sally), which marks where the ringer must catch the rope while ringing. Bells are rung from the "mouth up" position. With a pull of the rope, the bell swings through a full circle to the up position again. With the next pull it swings back in the other direction. The plot of Dorothy Sayers' The Nine Tailors (1934), considered one of her best works, revolves around the art of change ringing.