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A bell is a directly struck idiophone percussion instrument. Most bells have the shape of a hollow cup that when struck vibrates in a single strong strike tone, with its sides forming an efficient resonator. The strike may be made by an internal "clapper" or "uvula", an external hammer, or—in small bells—by a small loose sphere enclosed within the body of the bell (jingle bell).

Parts of a Bell.svg
Parts of a typical tower bell hung for swinging: 1. Bell yoke or headstock 2. canons, 3. crown, 4. shoulder, 5. waist, 6. sound bow, 7. lip, 8. mouth, 9. clapper, 10. bead line
Percussion instrument
Classification struck idiophone
Hornbostel–Sachs classification111.242
(Bells: Percussion vessels with the vibration weakest near the vertex)
Playing range
From very high to very low
Related instruments
Chimes, cowbell, handbell, gong

Bells are usually cast from bell metal (a type of bronze) for its resonant properties, but can also be made from other hard materials. This depends on the function. Some small bells such as ornamental bells or cowbells can be made from cast or pressed metal, glass or ceramic, but large bells such as a church, clock and tower bells are normally cast from bell metal.

Bells intended to be heard over a wide area can range from a single bell hung in a turret or bell-gable, to a musical ensemble such as an English ring of bells, a carillon or a Russian zvon which are tuned to a common scale and installed in a bell tower. Many public or institutional buildings house bells, most commonly as clock bells to sound the hours and quarters.

Historically, bells have been associated with religious rites, and are still used to call communities together for religious services.[1] Later, bells were made to commemorate important events or people and have been associated with the concepts of peace and freedom. The study of bells is called campanology.


Bell is a word common to the Low German dialects, cognate with Middle Low German belle and Dutch bel but not appearing among the other Germanic languages except the Icelandic bjalla which was a loanword from Old English.[2] It is popularly[3] but not certainly[2] related to the former sense of to bell (Old English: bellan, 'to roar, to make a loud noise') which gave rise to bellow.[4]


The earliest archaeological evidence of bells dates from the 3rd millennium BC, and is traced to the Yangshao culture of Neolithic China.[5] Clapper-bells made of pottery have been found in several archaeological sites.[6] The pottery bells later developed into metal bells. In West Asia, the first bells appear in 1000 BC.[5]

The earliest metal bells, with one found in the Taosi site and four in the Erlitou site, are dated to about 2000 BC.[7] Early bells not only have an important role in generating metal sound[clarification needed], but arguably played a prominent cultural role. With the emergence of other kinds of bells during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 – c. 1050 BC), they were relegated to subservient functions; at Shang and Zhou sites, they are also found as part of the horse-and-chariot gear and as collar-bells of dogs.[8]

The book of Exodus in the Bible notes that small gold bells were worn as ornaments on the hem of the robe of the high priest in Jerusalem.[9] Among the ancient Greeks, handbells were used in camps and garrisons and by patrols that went around to visit sentinels.[10] Among the Romans, the hour of bathing was announced by a bell. They also used them in the home, as an ornament and emblem, and bells were placed around the necks of cattle and sheep so they could be found if they strayed.

See also Klang Bell (Malaysia, 2 c. BC) of the British Museum collection.

Styles of ringingEdit

Static bells struck by solenoid-operated hammers in a bell-gable.
Mechanism of a bell hung for English full-circle ringing. The bell can swing through a full circle in alternate directions.
English full-circle bells shown in the "down" position, in which they are normally left between ringing sessions.
English full-circle bells shown in the "up" position.

In the western world, the common form of bell is a church bell or town bell, which is hung within a tower or bell cote. Such bells are either fixed in a static position ("hung dead") or mounted on a beam (the "headstock") so they can swing to and fro. Bells that are hung dead are normally sounded by hitting the sound bow with a hammer or occasionally by pulling an internal clapper against the bell.

Where a bell is swung it can either be swung over a small arc by a rope and lever or by using a rope on a wheel to swing the bell higher. As the bell swings higher the sound is projected outwards rather than downwards. Larger bells may be swung using electric motors. In some places, such as Salzburg Cathedral, the clappers are held against the sound bow whilst the bells are raised, then released sequentially to give a clean start to the ringing. In the end, they are successively caught again by the mechanism to silence the bells.[11]

Bells hung for full circle ringing are swung through just over a complete circle from mouth uppermost. A stay (the wooden pole seen sticking up when the bells are down) engages a mechanism to allow the bell to rest just past its balance point. The rope is attached to one side of a wheel so that a different amount of rope is wound on and off as it swings to and fro. The bells are controlled by ringers (one to a bell) in a chamber below, who rotate the bell to through a full circle and back, and control the speed of oscillation when the bell is mouth upwards at the balance-point when little effort is required.

Swinging bells are sounded by an internal clapper. The clapper may have a longer period of swing than the bell. In this case, the bell will catch up with the clapper and if rung to or near full circle will carry the clapper up on the bell's trailing side. Alternatively, the clapper may have a shorter period and catch up with the bell's leading side, travel up with the bell coming to rest on the downhill side. This latter method is used in English style full circle ringing.

Occasionally the clappers have leather pads (called muffles) strapped around them to quieten the bells when practice ringing to avoid annoying the neighbourhood. Also at funerals, half-muffles are often used to give a full open sound on one round, and a muffled sound on the alternate round – a distinctive, mournful effect. This was done at the Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.

A carillon, which is a musical instrument consisting of at least 23 cast bronze cup-shaped bells, is tuned so that the bells can be played serially to produce a melody, or sounded together to play a chord. A traditional carillon is played by striking a baton keyboard with the fists, and by pressing the keys of a pedal keyboard with the feet. The keys mechanically activate levers and wires that connect to metal clappers that strike the inside of the bells, allowing the performer to vary the intensity of the note according to the force applied to the key.

Church and temple bellsEdit

In the Eastern world, the traditional forms of bells are temple and palace bells, small ones being rung by a sharp rap with a stick, and very large ones rung by a blow from the outside by a large swinging beam. (See images of the great bell of Mii-dera below.)

The striking technique is employed worldwide for some of the largest tower-borne bells because swinging the bells themselves could damage their towers.

In the Roman Catholic Church and among some High Lutherans and Anglicans, small hand-held bells, called Sanctus or sacring bells,[12] are often rung by a server at Mass when the priest holds high up first the host and then the chalice immediately after he has said the words of consecration over them (the moment known as the Elevation). This serves to indicate to the congregation that the bread and wine have just been transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ (see transubstantiation), or, in the alternative Reformation teaching, that Christ is now bodily present in the elements, and that what the priest is holding up for them to look at is Christ himself (see consubstantiation).

In Russian Orthodox bell ringing, the entire bell never moves, only the clapper. A complex system of ropes is developed and used uniquely for every bell tower. Some ropes (the smaller ones) are played by hand, the bigger ropes are played by foot.

Bells in Japanese religionEdit

Wind-powered bell under temple eaves,. Banna-ji. Ashikaga, Tochigi.

Japanese Shintoist and Buddhist bells are used in religious ceremonies. Suzui, a homophone meaning both "cool" and "refreshing", are spherical bells which contain metal pellets that produce sound from the inside. The hemispherical bell is the Kane bell, which is struck on the outside. Large suspended temple bells are known as bonshō. (See also ja:鈴, ja:梵鐘).

Bells in Jainism, Buddhism and HinduismEdit

Jain, Hindu and Buddhist bells, called "Ghanta" (IAST: Ghaṇṭā) in Sanskrit, are used in religious ceremonies. See also singing bowls. A bell hangs at the gate of many Hindu temples and is rung at the moment one enters the temple.[13]


The process of casting bells is called bellfounding, and in Europe dates to the 4th or 5th century.[14] The traditional metal for these bells is a bronze of about 23% tin.[15] Known as bell metal, this alloy is also the traditional alloy for the finest Turkish and Chinese cymbals. Other materials sometimes used for large bells include brass and iron. Steel was tried during the busy church-building period of mid-19th-century England, because it was more economical than bronze, but was found not to be durable and manufacture ceased in the 1870s.[16]


Small bells were originally made with the lost wax process but large bells are cast mouth downwards by filling the air space in a two-part mould with molten metal. Such a mould has an outer section clamped to a base-plate on which an inner core has been constructed.[17]

The core is built on the base-plate using porous materials such as coke or brick and then covered in loam well mixed with straw and horse manure. This is given a profile corresponding to the inside shape of the finished bell and dried with gentle heat. Graphite and whiting are applied to form the final, smooth surface.

The outside of the mould is made within a perforated cast-iron case, larger than the finished bell, containing the loam mixture which is shaped, dried and smoothed in the same way as the core. The case is inverted (mouth down), lowered over the core and clamped to the base plate. The clamped mould is supported, usually by being buried in a casting pit to bear the weight of metal and to allow even cooling.[18]

Historically, before rail or road transport of large bells was possible, a "bell pit" was often dug in the grounds of the building where the bell was to be installed. Molten bell metal is poured into the mould through a box lined with foundry sand. The founder would bring his casting tools to the site, and a furnace would be built next to the pit.

Bell tuningEdit

The principal harmonics of the Erfurt bell (1497)[19] typical of a harmonically-tuned bell:[20] strike note is E, with hum note an octave below, minor third, fifth, nominal above, and major third and perfect fifth in the second octave.
Spectrum of the tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral as analyzed by Jonathan Harvey using FFT[21] "The bell produces a secondary pitch (f') which lies outside that 'inharmonic series though it is clearly audible when the bell is struck, 'to curiously thrilling and disturbing effect.'"[22]  Play approximation  The strike tone is middle C, the hum tone an octave below.

Large bells are generally around 80% copper and 20% tin (bell metal), which has been found empirically to give the most pleasant tone. However, the tone of a bell is mostly due to its shape. A bell is regarded as having a good tone when it's "in tune with itself".[20] In western bell founding, this is known as "harmonic tuning" of a bell, which results in the bell's strongest harmonics being in harmony with each other and the strike note. This produces the brightest and purest sound, which is the attractive sound of a good bell. A huge amount of effort has been expended over the centuries in finding the shape which will produce the harmonically tuned bell.

The accompanying musical staves show the series of harmonics which are generated when a bell is struck. The Erfurt bell is notable that it although it is an old bell, it is harmonically tuned, but was not typical of its time. Pieter and François Hemony in the 17th century reliably cast many bells for carillons of unequalled quality of tuning for the time, but after their death, their guarded trade secrets were lost, and not until the 19th century were bells of comparable tuning quality cast. It was only in modern times that repeatable harmonic tuning using a known scientific basis was achieved. The main partials (or harmonics) of a well-tuned bell are:

  • hum note (an octave below the named note)
  • strike tone (also called tap note or named note)
  • tierce (a minor third above named note)
  • quint (a fifth above named note)
  • nominal (an octave above named note)

Further, less-audible, harmonics include the major third and a perfect fifth in the second octave above the named note.

This quest by various founders over centuries of bell founding has resulted in the development of an optimum profile for casting each size of a bell to give true harmonic tuning. Although bells are cast to accurate patterns, variations in casting mean that a final tuning is necessary as the shape of the bell is critical in producing the desired strike note and associated harmonics. Tuning is undertaken by clamping the bell on a large rotating table and using a cutting tool to remove metal. This is an iterative process in which metal is removed from certain parts of the bell to change certain harmonics. This process was made possible historically by the use of tuning forks to find sympathetic resonance on specific parts of a bell for the harmonic being tuned, but today electronic strobe tuners are normally used. To tune the strike note, the nominal or the strike note are tuned; the effect is usually the same because the nominal is one of the main partials that determines the tone of the strike note.[23] The thickness of a church bell at its thickest part, called the "sound bow", is usually one thirteenth its diameter. If the bell is mounted as cast, it is called a "maiden bell". [24]

Major third bellEdit

The traditional harmonically tuned bell has a minor third as a main harmonic. On the theory that western music in major keys may sound better on bells with a major third as a harmonic, production of bells with major thirds was attempted in the 1980s. Scientists at the Technical University in Eindhoven, using computer modelling, produced bell profiles which were cast by the Eijsbouts Bellfoundry in the Netherlands.[23] They were described as resembling old Coke bottles[25] in that they had a bulge around the middle;[26] In 1999 a design without the bulge was announced.[27] However, the major bell concept has found little favour, and minor third bells are almost universally cast today.

Use in clock chimesEdit

Big Ben in the Elizabeth Tower of the British parliament.

Bells are also associated with clocks, indicating the hour by the striking of bells. Indeed, the word clock comes from the Latin word Cloca, meaning bell. Bells in clock towers or bell towers can be heard over long distances, which was especially important in the time when clocks were too expensive for widespread use.

In the case of clock towers and grandfather clocks, a particular sequence of tones may be played to distinguish between the hour, half-hour, quarter-hour, or other intervals. One common pattern is called "Westminster Quarters," a sixteen-note pattern named after the Palace of Westminster which popularized it as the measure used by Big Ben.

Notable bellsEdit

The Tsar Bell with humans for perspective
Petersglocke, Cologne Cathedral with person for scale

Usage as musical instrumentsEdit

A bell out of bronze with its principal tone at 1133 Hertz

Some bells are used as musical instruments, such as carillons, (clock) chimes, agogô, or ensembles of bell-players, called bell choirs, using hand-held bells of varying tones.[31] A "ring of bells" is a set of four to twelve or more bells used in change ringing, a particular method of ringing bells in patterns. A peal in changing ringing may have bells playing for several hours, playing 5,000 or more patterns without a break or repetition. They have also been used in many kinds of popular music, such as in AC/DC's "Hells Bells" and Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls".

Ancient Chinese bellsEdit

A Warring States-era zheng (钲) bell from Baoshan 2 Tomb in Jingmen, Hubei

The ancient Chinese bronze chime bells called bianzhong or zhong / zeng (鐘) were used as polyphonic musical instruments and some have been dated at between 2000 and 3600 years old. Tuned bells have been created and used for musical performance in many cultures but Zhong are unique among all other types of cast bells in several respects and they rank among the highest achievements of Chinese bronze casting technology. However, the remarkable secret of their design and the method of casting—known only to the Chinese in antiquity—was lost in later generations and was not fully rediscovered and understood until the 20th century.

In 1978 a complete ceremonial set of 65 Zhong bells was found in a near-perfect state of preservation during the excavation of the tomb of Marquis Yi, ruler of Zeng, one of the Warring States. Their special shape gives them the ability to produce two different musical tones, depending on where they are struck. The interval between these notes on each bell is either a major or minor third, equivalent to a distance of four or five notes on a piano.[32]

The bells of Marquis Yi—which were still fully playable after almost 2500 years—cover a range of slightly less than five octaves but thanks to their dual-tone capability, the set can sound a complete 12-tone scale—predating the development of the European 12-tone system by some 2000 years—and can play melodies in diatonic and pentatonic scales.[33]

Another related ancient Chinese musical instrument is called qing ( pinyin qìng) but it was made of stone instead of metal.

In more recent times, the top of bells in China was usually decorated with a small dragon, known as pulao; the figure of the dragon served as a hook for hanging the bell.

This copper bell was made by pre-Columbian North American natives.


Konguro'o is a small bell which, like the Djalaajyn, was first used for utilitarian purposes and only later for artistic ones. Konguro'o rang when moving to new places. They were fastened to the horse harnesses and created a very specific "smart" sound background. Konguro'o also hung on the neck of the leader goat, which the sheep herd followed. This led to the association in folk memory between the distinctive sound of konguro'o and the nomadic way of life.

To make this instrument, Kyrgyz foremen used copper, bronze, iron and brass. They also decorated it with artistic carving and covered it with silver. Sizes of the instruments might vary within certain limits, what depended on its function. Every bell had its own timbre.


A variant on the bell is the tubular bell. Several of these metal tubes which are struck manually with hammers, form an instrument named tubular bells or chimes. In the case of wind or aeolian chimes, the tubes are blown against one another by the wind.

Lithuanian SkrabalaiEdit

The skrabalai is a traditional folk instrument in Lithuania which consists of wooden bells of various sizes hanging in several vertical rows with one or two wooden or metal small clappers hanging inside them. It is played with two wooden sticks. When the skrabalai is moved a clapper knocks at the wall of the trough. The pitch of the sound depends on the size of the wooden trough. The instrument developed from wooden cowbells that shepherds would tie to cows' necks.

Farm bellsEdit

Whereas the church and temple bells called to mass or religious service, bells were used on farms for more secular signalling. The greater farms in Scandinavia usually had a small bell-tower resting on the top of the barn. The bell was used to call the workers from the field at the end of the day's work.

The Glasgow 'Dead or Deid bell' of 1642

In folk tradition, it is recorded that each church and possibly several farms had their specific rhymes connected to the sound of the specific bells. An example is the Pete Seeger and Idris Davies song "The Bells of Rhymney".

Dead bellEdit

In Scotland, up until the nineteenth century, it was the tradition to ring a dead bell, a form of handbell, at the death of an individual and at the funeral.[34]

Bell study and ringing organisationsEdit

The following organizations promote the ringing, study, music, collection, preservation and restoration of bells.[35] Nation(s) covered are given in parenthesis.


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Bell". Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th Edition. 3. University Press. 1910. pp. 687–691. Retrieved 2012-02-01.
  2. ^ a b "bell, n.1", Oxford English Dictionary, 1st ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1887.
  3. ^ Haweis, H. R. (1878). "Bell" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (9th ed.). p. 536.
  4. ^ "bell, v.4", Oxford English Dictionary, 1st ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1887.
  5. ^ a b Falkenhausen, Lothar Von (1993). Suspended Music: Chime Bells in the Culture of Bronze Age China. University of California Press. p. 132. ISBN 978-0-520-07378-4. Retrieved February 8, 2013. China seems to have produced the earliest bells anywhere in the world... the earliest metal bells may have been derived from pottery prototypes, which seem to go back to the late stage of the Yang-Shao culture (early third millennium BC)
  6. ^ Huang, Houming. "Prehistoric Music Culture of China," in Cultural Relics of Central China, 2002, No. 3:18–27. ISSN 1003-1731. pp. 20–27.
  7. ^ Falkenhausen (1994), p. 132, Appendix I pp. 329, 342.
  8. ^ Falkenhausen (1994), 134.
  9. ^ Exodus 28:33–34
  10. ^ The National Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge, Vol III, (1847) London, Charles Knight, p.126.
  11. ^ Glockenfampf (24 September 2015). Salzburg (Austria) The bells of Salzburg cathedral. YouTube. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  12. ^ Herrera, Matthew D.Sanctus Bells: Their History and Use in the Catholic Church. San Luis Obispo: Tixlini Scriptorium, 2004. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2011-06-04. Retrieved 2011-09-26.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. ^ "Why do Hindus ring bell in temple". Archived from the original on 12 March 2015. Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  14. ^ Milham, Willis I. (1945). Time and Timekeepers, pp. 313–18.
  15. ^ Cubberly, William H. (1989). "Metals". In Bakerjian, Ramon (ed.). Tool and manufacturing engineers handbook. Dearborn, MI: Society of Manufacturing Engineers. pp. 15–38. ISBN 978-0-87263-351-3.
  16. ^ Jennings, Trevor (1988). Bellfounding. Princes Risborough, England: Shire. p. 8. ISBN 0-85263-911-2.
  17. ^ Jennings (1988: 3; 10)
  18. ^ Jennings (1988: 11)
  19. ^ Musical Association (1902). Proceedings of the Musical Association, Volume 28, p. 32. Whitehead & Miller, ltd.
  20. ^ a b John Alexander Fuller-Maitland (1910). Grove's dictionary of music and musicians, p. 615. The Macmillan company. Strike note shown on C. Hemony appears to be the first to propose this tuning.
  21. ^ Roads, Curtis, ed. (1992). "The Music Machine: Selected Readings from Computer Music Journal". Computer Music Journal: 92. ISBN 978-0-262-68078-3. a clearly audible, slow-decaying partial at 347 Hz with a beating component in it. It is a resultant of the various F harmonic series partials that can be clearly seen in the spectrum (5, [6], 7, 9, 11, 13, 17, etc.) beside the C-related partials.
  22. ^ Downes, Michael (2009). Jonathan Harvey: Song offerings and White as jasmine, p. 22. ISBN 978-0-7546-6022-4.
  23. ^ a b Neville Horner Fletcher, Thomas D. Rossing (1998). The Physics of Musical Instruments, p. 685. ISBN 978-0-387-98374-5. Cites Schoofs et al., 1987 for major-third bell.
  24. ^ Beach, Frederick Converse and Rines, George Edwin (eds.) (1907). The Americana, p.BELL-SMITH—BELL. Scientific American. [1].
  25. ^[permanent dead link]
  26. ^ "Major third bell Archived 2007-10-18 at the Wayback Machine",
  27. ^ Rossing, Thomas D. (2000). Science of Percussion Instruments, p. 139. ISBN 978-981-02-4158-2.
  28. ^ "The Liberty Bell" (PDF). National Park Service. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2010-11-30. Retrieved 2010-08-11.
  29. ^ Sacred destinations. Erfurt Cathedral. Retrieved 19 October 2019
  30. ^ Musical Association (1902). Proceedings of the Musical Association, Volume 28, p.32. London: Stanley Lucas, Weber & Company
  31. ^ Examples of carillons can be found here: "Carillon." Musiconis Database. Université Paris-Sorbonne.[permanent dead link] Accessed January 5, 2018.
  32. ^ Alan Thorne & Robert Raymond, Man on the Rim: The Peopling of the Pacific (ABC Books, 1989), pp. 166–67
  33. ^ Cultural China website – "Bronze Chime Bells of Marquis Yi" Archived 2011-02-03 at the Wayback Machine
  34. ^ Adamson, Page 189
  35. ^ Rama, Jean-Pierre (1993). Cloches de France et d’ailleurs, Le Temps Apprivoisé, pp.229-230. Paris, France. ISBN 2283581583.


Further readingEdit

  • Fadul, Jose A. Fadul's Encyclopedia of Bells. 2015. Lulu Press. ISBN 978-131-260-110-9
  • Spencer, Ann "And round me rings": bell tales and folklore. Toronto: Tundra, 2003 ISBN 0-88776-597-1
  • Willis, Stephen Charles. Bells through the Ages: from the Percival Price Collection = Les Cloches à travers les siècles: provenant du fonds Percival Price. Ottawa: National Library of Canada, 1986. 34 p., ill. with b&w photos. N.B.: Prepared on the occasion of an exhibition of the same title, based on the collection of bell and carillon related material and documentation, of former Dominion Carilloneur (of Canadian Parliament, Ottawa), Percival Price, held at the National Library of Canada (as then named), 12 May to 14 Sept. 1986; some copies come with the guide to the taped dubbings of the recordings played as background music to the displays, as technically prepared by Gilles Saint-Laurent and listed by Stephen Charles Willis, both of the library's Music Division; English and French texts respectively divided into upper and lower portions of each page. ISBN 0-662-54295-9

External linksEdit