Bell Instruments

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Terms used to represent the number of bells in the instrument

Over the centuries, bell founders and campanologists have given names to represent the musical scope and number of bells in a ringing collection.

Single Bell

A single bell is a monotonic instrument. With traditional ringing devices it will always sound one note when struck. Larger bells sound lower notes than smaller bells.


If we add a second bell of a different size, we can play the two together to form a simple chord, or if we ring them in sequence we can ring the simplest of melodies: Ding Dong, Dong Ding or other combinations of the two notes.

We use the word peal as a noun when we refer to a collection of two or more bells that are not installed or fitted for playing musical melodies. See the article titled Peal configurations for suggested musical intervals useful for ordering a peal of bells. We use peal as a verb when we ring this collection of bells together either by swinging them in a gimbal mounting, or simulating this swinging action using strike timing and other means on bells that are hung on stationary beams.

See a video demonstration of a three-bell peal.


In the United Kingdom you can find hundreds of bell instruments uniquely designed for group participation. A ring will be comprised of six or more bells. The larger rings have as many as twelve to sixteen bells.

Each bell in a ring of bells is suspended in a rotating headstock quite different from a traditional swinging bell headstock. The design of a ringing headstock does not allow the bell to freely swing back and forth. Instead, a bell in a ring swings between two rest positions, right side up and upside down. Each time the bell is moved from one position to the other its clapper strikes the bell's note.

Attached to the headstock is a wheel of sufficient size to allow the bell to be controlled by a rope. The wooden stop that holds the bell at the top position is sprung to allow the rope to be pulled so that the rebound action brings the bell back to the lower rest position.

The ropes used to swing the bells are arranged in a circle in the ringing room and fitted with colored wool grips called sallies. The ringers stand in a circle, each holding their own sally to ring one bell. Rather than playing a music tune, the ringers follow one another to perform sequenced permutations called changes.


A chime is a collection of enough bells to perform a song or hymn. While we may find simple tunes such as Amazing Grace that could be performed on a pentatonic peal of six bells, we reserve the term chime to represent a collection of bells that can ring a reasonable repertoire of tunes for all seasons.

To be useful, the chime should encompass a span of at least one octave (8 diatonic notes). In addition, semitones are often employed to enlarge the number of musical selections that can be played. The most-often added semitone is the minor-seventh. Additionally, many chimes include the sharp-fourth.

The Star Spangled Banner can be performed on a chime of fourteen bells consisting of twelve diatonic notes, spanning 1-1/2 octaves, plus the sharp fourth and flat seventh. Hundreds of other songs and hymns can be played on this chime instrument. A Mighty Fortress requires at least 11 bells with 10 diatonic notes and a flat seventh. A flat third (or sixth) would be nice for playing Beneath the Cross of Jesus.


A carillon generally has larger scope and nearly all semitones when compared to a chime. Some instruments in Europe are called carillons if they span 1-1/2 octaves and have all but the lowest two semitones (18 bells).

The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America have defined the minimum carillon to be 23 bells, spanning two octaves and missing only the two lowest semitones. Several grand carillons exist with 65 or more bells.

Tubular tower chime instruments exist which exceed two octaves and have all semitones. While they certainly qualify as a carillon in scope, the type of bells and action keep most people from identifying them as anything other than a chime.

Terms used to describe the playing action

Rope pulled tolling hammer

The simplest way to play a bell is to pull a rope that is connected to a tolling hammer or clapper.

Care must always be taken, when you ring a bell this way, that the bell is not swinging. Always allow the bell time to come to a full stop before pulling on the tolling rope. If the hammer contacts the bell while it swings, the hammer arm as well as the bell can incur damage.
Also be sure to release tension as soon as the hammer contacts the bell. Your bell could be damaged by holding the hammer against the bell as it rings, and it negatively affects the sound of that toll.

Traditional manual carillon action

A traditional carillon action is a purely mechanical transmission that takes the energy of the players body and uses it to move the clappers to the bell to sound each note of a musical piece. Traditional actions almost always make use mechanical advantage in the form of springs, weights and leverage to move heavy clappers using ordinary mortal physical powers. Additional pneumatic power has historically been used to assist ringing the largest bells on a few instruments.

The manual of the keyboard or part that the player's hands are used to play is made up of keys made in appearance as wooden rods. To these levers are connected the transmission wire, typically made of stainless steel that carries the energy up to the bell chamber.

Electric action (Non-Traditional)

With electric clappers or hammers, electrical impulses from an electric/MIDI keyboard can be used to ring the bell. An advantage of this system is that anyone who can play a piano can make music on the bells. Recent advances in electric ringing technology allows a more natural playing dynamic to be realized using electric clappers or hammers.