Tower Bells

Bell towers adorn some of civilization’s most magnificent buildings and have been a fixture of architectural design for a thousand years. Captivating for their imposing height and monumental scale, they are made more human by the bells within. Tower bells are the heartbeat of a community. In cities all over the world, neighborhoods are defined by the distinctive tones and individual resonance of bells. 

Throughout history, bell towers accompanied churches, civic centers, and town halls, as these structures were most often found at the city center and therefore were accessible to the greatest number of people. Tower bells announced the time, significant occasions, or cause for alarm. The higher the tower, the further the ringing could be heard – and the greater the prestige. Rising above parks, universities, and memorials, bell towers continue to be a focal point for community activity. 

The third-tallest bell-and-clock tower in the world, Sather Tower at the University of California, Berkeley, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

Most bell towers have between one and five bells, but a single tower might hold dozens. Harmonically-tuned carillons can play beloved melodies across their number of bells, while a tower with fewer bells would typically be chimed to call the faithful to worship, tolled for funerals, struck on the hour or quarter-hour, sounded in case of fire, or rung to warn ships of coastal hazards (lighthouse bells were often installed as a counter to dense fog). No matter their purpose, tower bells still find a place in a modern society because of their ability to stir the human soul.

Great bells

There are many ways to classify and describe a bell: its shape, age, decoration, tuning – even how and when it rings. Of all these characteristics, a bell’s weight and size can easily set it apart from others. Bells come in countless weights and sizes, but really big bells are in a class all their own. These are collectively known as ‘great bells’ and their presence in a community is certainly seen, heard, and felt. 

Great bells are generally regarded as those weighing over 8,000 lbs. There are only about 100 of these great bells in America, with most of them serving as the bourdon bell and lower notes in grand carillons. Because of the correlation between the weight and diameter of bells cast in the Western tradition (and how that influences tone), most great bells resonate with a pitch of bass G# or lower. 

These bells are often the most lauded in a set or carillon, and are named or dedicated to individuals of great importance. In the Catholic tradition, the largest bell of a set might be named in honor of the Virgin Mary. In more secular collections, the great bell might bear an inscription of a great personage or figure, like a president, general, or philosopher. Great bells add an element of prestige and majesty to a bell tower.

Change ringing

Originating during the 16th century in England, change ringing involves a group of people rhythmically ringing a set of tuned bells in close coordination through a series of changing sequences that are determined by mathematical principles and executed according to learned patterns. Rather than a conventional melody, the result is a rich cascade of sound. Unlike the tower bells in most churches and schools in North America, change ringing bells begin their swing from a mouth-upward position and rotate full circle before reaching the balance point and then, by the pulling of a rope by the ringer, swing back in the opposite direction. Depending on the number of bells employed, the number of variations in the striking sequences (and by extension, the number of sound combinations we hear standing on the ground below) can vary greatly.

For instance, a full peal on 10 bells, consisting of 5,040 changes, would take nearly 3.5 hours to complete. As one might deduce, a full peal is only attempted on special occasions. In fact, it would take approximately 123 days, ringing continuously day and night, to ring all the possible mathematical permutations on 10 bells. We can’t imagine the neighbors would be too pleased. Today, there are roughly 50 towers dotted across the U.S. with English change ringing bells.