Change–Ringing — an introduction
Find out more about the peculiarly English style of bell ringing known as “change–ringing”, which has spread beyond the British Isles to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, and Canada.
On this page you will find answers to the following questions:
Learning to ring involves learning and developing two types of skills that are probably unrelated to anything the new ringer has learned before.
First, there is the motor skill of learning how to control a bell hung for ‘full circle ringing’ (see below for what this means), generally referred to as ‘bell handling’. The aim is to be able to make the bell sound pretty much exactly when you want it to when ringing with other ringers (who are each ringing their own bell) so that there is an even gap between the sound of each successive bell. Initially, this is taught on a one–to–one basis, often with the bell silenced by tying the clapper, and most people can learn to handle a bell on their own in less than an hour. However, being able to handle a bell accurately enough to ring with other ringers takes longer, perhaps as long as it might take to pass a car driving test. It rather depends on how often and for how long the learner can practise, and you would not expect to pass your driving test very quickly if you practised for only ten minute a week! As with other motor skills, younger people tend to pick up bell handling more quickly than older people. With practice and opportunity, you will find that being able to ring with other ringers, and be part of a band that can produce a good rhythm on the bells is a very rewarding experience.
The second type of skill is the cognitive process of learning ‘change–ringing’: the ‘music’ that is rung on bells (see below for an introduction to what this means). Most people will be able to start this within a few weeks of beginning to learn, but it depends largely on their ability to handle a bell comfortably. This is nothing like learning different pieces of music for the trumpet or the clarinet except that, in the same way as for a musical instrument, there is virtually no limit to what one can learn. Being able to ring new and different change–ringing methods with other ringers provides the greatest sense of achievement and satisfaction. But not everyone strives to learn new things all the time, and many people are happy to stay at the level at which they feel most comfortable and confident.
There seems to be an interaction between learning these skills, so that a learner may be able to handle a bell confidently when there is not much else to think about, but when the added mental effort of change–ringing is added in, the handling becomes erratic. The answer to this is PRACTISE!
Ringing is taught by other ringers, almost always on bells that belong to a church. If you are not sure where your nearest church with bells is, or how to contact the ringers, with your post code and I will try to help. Don’t worry if you are not a church–goer: ringers come in all shades of religious belief and disbelief, and generally will be interested in you only as a potential new ringer. But if you decide to take up ringing you will be expected to ring for church services – this is the unofficial ‘deal’ that comes with the huge amount of pleasure to be got from ringing the church’s bells.
Each bell is attached to a beam known as a “headstock”. The headstock has bearings at each end which are attached to a frame so that the bell and its headstock are free to swing backwards and forwards. There is also a wheel attached to the headstock, and a rope attached to the wheel which passes over pulleys to the bell ringer who stands below. By pulling on the rope, the bell and its headstock can be made to swing. And, rather like pushing a child’s swing, the bell can be made to swing through successively greater arcs by timing the pull on the rope to coincide with the movement of the bell. Similarly, by timing the pull slightly differently, the bell can be made to swing in smaller arcs. In “full circle ringing” the arc through which the bell swings is almost a full circle, first in one direction (known as “hand–stroke”) and then in the opposite direction (known as “back–stroke”).
Inside the bell there is a free swinging clapper that can strike the inside rim of the bell causing it to sound. The clapper is designed so that it will strike the bell once each time the bell rotates and this happens about ¾ of the way through its rotation. It takes about 2 seconds for a bell to swing from mouth up position to mouth up position, and so there are about 2 seconds between successive blows of the clapper on the bell. However, by careful adjustments to the pull on the rope, the ringer can cause the bell to swing through a slightly smaller or slightly greater arc (but not more than a complete circle) and this in turn causes successive blows of the clapper to occur at a slightly quicker or slightly slower rate.
Change–ringing is the music that is rung on bells hung for “full circle ringing” as described above.
A set of bells, (called a “ring” of bells) is normally tuned to form the notes of a major scale, and commonly comprises 5, 6, 8, 10 or 12 bells. For the purpose of this explanation, examples are given for 6 bells. These normally form the lower 6 notes of an octave, but instead of referring to them by their musical note the bells are numbered from 1 to 6 (or 1 to 8 or 1 to 10 etc.) with 1 being the highest–sounding note. With one ringer for each bell, they can all be rung full circle but with a slight time gap between each bell.
So, in the (approximately) 2 seconds it takes between successive strikes of a particular bell, all the other bell can ring in turn as follows:
Ringing the bells in order down the scale like this is called ringing “rounds”. The pause marked in this diagram is usually introduced to make it easier for the ringers to hear the sequence of the bells, and is called the “hand–stroke gap”.
Obviously, to create any kind of music it is necessary to ring the bells in different orders, but, due to the inertia of the moving bells, it is not possible to make one bell sound twice in quick succession, and so it is not possible to play conventional tunes. However, by making small changes to the amount of rotation of the bells, the ringers can cause the time interval between successive blows of different bells to vary just enough for adjacent sounding bells to swap places. It is this successive changing of the order in which the bells sound that is called change–ringing (and is also the origin of the common expression to “ring the changes”).
The order in which the bells sound is written as a “row” of numbers, so rounds is written
another row is
and another row is
In fact there are 720 possible rows on six bells i.e. there are 720 different orders in which the numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 can be written.
When different rows are rung, there is a “change” in the order in which the bells sound. And, if the ringing progresses through a sequence that starts and ends in rounds, with no rows repeated, there will be the same number of changes as rows.
This is done by swapping adjacent pairs of bells. Ringing always starts with rounds, where the bells ring in the order:
If 4 and 5 are swapped, the following row is produced:
If 2 and 3 are now swapped, the following row is produced:
And if 2 and 5 are now swapped, the following row is produced:
This row, ringing first the odd–numbered bells then the even–numbered bells, is generally thought to sound pleasing and is given the name “queens”.
Call changes are a way of achieving exactly what was illustrated above, by having the change called out by the conductor. There are several ways this can be done but a common one is as follows. To produce the first change the conductor calls “4 to 5” (i.e. bell number 4 must follow bell number 5 instead of the other way round). When the new row is being rung, the conductor calls “2 to 3”, and then when this new row is being rung he calls “2 to 5”. If the calls are made every hand–stroke the effect is as follows:
123456123456 123546123546 132546132546 135246135246
An important rule for change–ringing is that only adjacent pairs can swap position. In the above example, only one pair was changed at once, but, on 6 bells, there are three adjacent pairs that could be swapped, i.e. 1&2, 3&4, and 5&6, and there is no reason why they should not all be swapped at once. So, it is possible to go directly from the order
If the three pairs 1&2, 3&4, and 5&6 are swapped again then we return to rounds which is not very adventurous as there are 720 possible rows for six bells, and one thing that bell ringers like to do is to ring as many different rows as possible without repeating any. One way to get a new row from
is to leave the first and last bells (2 and 5) in the same place and swap the internal pairs 1&4 and 3&6 to give:
We can then swap all the pairs again to give:
and then swap only the internal pairs to give:
This process, of alternately swapping all the pairs and then only the internal pairs, can be repeated for every row that the bells are rung, and this defines a change–ringing “method”. This is the simplest method and is called “Plain Hunt”. So, starting with two rows of rounds, the result is as follows:
123456123456 214365214365 241635241635 426153462513 645213654321 etc.
If we write out the bell numbers in one line as above, in the order they sound, it is not very easy to see what is happening, so what bell ringers normally do is to write each row on a separate line, as shown below:
It can be seen that Plain Hunt comes back to rounds after 12 changes. In this case, the conductor would have his work cut out if he tried to call all these changes for every row, so all he does is call “go Plain Hunt” and the ringers, who all know how Plain Hunt is constructed, control their individual bells to ring sometimes quicker, sometimes slower, in order to swap with an adjacent bell, and ring the changes.
But ringers don’t ring by thinking about which pairs are swapping, because there is an easier way of thinking about it.
Looking at bell number 1, we can draw a line through all the “1”s and see that initially it goes from left to right, and then it goes from right to left. All that the ringer of this bell has to remember is the shape of the line and what it means. Specifically, the ringer has to remember whether the line is going from left to right (called “hunting up”) or from right to left (called “hunting down”) or straight down, such as when the bell is last in the row for two successive blows (this happens for bell 1 half way through and is called “lying behind”) or is first in the row for two successive blows (this happens for bell 1 at the end and is called “leading”).
In fact, if a line is drawn through the number corresponding to any of the bells it will be found to have the same shape as that for bell 1, but with a different starting position. For example, by drawing a line through all the “3”s it will be seen that this bell hunts up to the back of the row, lies behind for two blows, hunts down to the front, leads for two blows, then hunts back up to third place in rounds.
Still looking at bell 1, we see it is ringing at the front of the row in rounds, then in second place in the next row, then third, then fourth, then fifth, then at the back of the row in sixth place. This is called “hunting up”. When ringing rounds, the other five bells ring between successive blows of bell 1, but when hunting up there are six bells between successive blows:
When bell 1 has reached the back of the row, it stays there for a second blow (with all five of the other bells between these successive blows). In the next row it rings in fifth place, then fourth, then third, then second, and then it leads. This is called “hunting down”, and when hunting down there are only four bells between the successive blows of bell 1. When bell 1 reaches the front of the row (i.e. it is “leading”), it stays there for a second blow (with all five of the other bells between those successive blows) and the bells come back into rounds:
There is only one way that bell 1 can leave room for six bells to ring between its successive blows when hunting up, and that is to ring slightly more slowly than it does in rounds. Similarly, with only four other bells ringing between its successive blows when hunting down, bell 1 must ring slightly more quickly than it does in rounds.
So, there are three possible speeds that bell 1 can ring: the speed in rounds, the slower speed, and the quicker speed. And the same is true for all the other bells. Plain Hunt is the simplest method but, no matter how complicated the method, there are always only these three possible speeds. The only thing that is different with more complicated methods is that changes in speed can occur much more frequently.
Slower than rounds speed – the bell swings higher than in rounds.
Quicker than rounds speed – the bell swings less high than in rounds.
We have seen that by alternately swapping all the pairs of bells and then only the internal pairs, each bell will plain hunt, and that 12 of the 720 possible rows will be rung before the six bells come back into rounds (go back and revise plain hunt if you are not sure about this). It is also useful to note that when only the internal pairs are swapped, one bell leads for two blows (hand–stroke then back–stroke) and another bell lies in sixth place for two blows (hand–stroke then back–stroke)
A simple method for producing more of the 720 possible rows is to introduce a slight variation when the “treble” (bell 1 is usually called the treble) comes back to lead (called the “lead end”). In plain hunt, the sequence would be to cross the internal pairs, leaving the first and last bells (bell 1 and bell 6) to stay where they are for two blows, and this produces rounds. However, if we leave the first and second bells (bell 1 and bell 3) where they are, and cross the remaining pairs, we get a new row instead of rounds, namely: 135264
This method is called “Plain Bob”. More precisely, it is called Plain Bob Minor to signify it is rung on six bells (Minimus is for four bells, Major for eight bells, Royal for ten bells, Maximus for twelve bells).
If we examine this new row (135264) it can be seen that only the treble (bell 1) has come back to the position it occupied in rounds (i.e. leading) while all the other bells are in a different position. In fact, the order of the remaining five bells has rotated, so comparing this new row with rounds:
Bell 6 is in the position that was occupied by bell 5
Bell 5 is in the position that was occupied by bell 3
Bell 3 is in the position that was occupied by bell 2
Bell 2 is in the position that was occupied by bell 4
Bell 4 is in the position that was occupied by bell 6
The sequence 5 3 2 4 6, which can be seen immediately above, recurs many times in change–ringing.
then another new row will be produced:
Do it again and we get:
So, instead of coming back to rounds after 12 changes, Plain Bob Minor comes back into rounds after 5 × 12 = 60 changes.
As with Plain Hunt, ringers learn Plain Bob by drawing a line through the number corresponding to one of the bells and then remembering the shape of the line. For the treble, there is nothing new to learn because it rings plain hunt as before. For the other bells there is a new line to learn, but the shape of the line for each of the other bells is the same – they just start in a different position.
On the left, you will see Plain Bob Minor written out in full with a line drawn through the path of bell 2. Ringers learn the shape of this line by noting that it is, essentially, plain hunt except when the treble leads. At this point a “dodge” is made while one bell stays two blows in second place.
The sequence 5 3 2 4 6 mentioned above can be seen in the figures for Plain Bob. If you look at the order in which the bells come to the back of the rows (come into sixth place), it is the order 5 3 2 4 6 but with the treble appearing somewhere in this order. This is a useful piece of information for the ringers (and the conductor) to help keep right.
Plain Bob Minor, as written out on the left, produces only 60 rows, but this can be extended by introducing temporary alterations to the method.
This alteration to the lead end is announced to the ringers by the conductor calling “bob” just before the lead end and the effect is to rotate the positions of bells 2, 3 and 4. Ringing Plain Bob without any “bobs” called, is referred to as ringing a “plain course”, whereas ringing with bobs is referred to as ringing a “touch”. By choosing where to call the bobs, the conductor can call touches of Plain Bob Minor of differing lengths up to a maximum of 360 changes. This can be doubled to obtain the full 720 changes (and all the possible 720 rows) by introducing another call “single”. When a “single” is called, the bells in second place and third place and fourth place all ring in the same place for two blows while the treble leads, and the remaining pair swaps.
There are many more methods beyond Plain Bob, and more information might be added to this page from time to time, but the main aim here is to provide basic information for the non–ringer and beginner. Once you have started to learn to ring your teacher should be able to tell you about books and leaflets that are available. However, there is also masses of information on the Internet (see below).
Click here for a comprehensive list of other change-ringing links.
Peter Blight, November 2009
last updated 20th April 2019