Ringing in the season

Everywhere you listen these days - from street corners to church towers - you can hear bells

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Jingle bells, silver bells, hand bells. Bells are all around us, all the time: door bells, church bells, school bells. At Christmastime you see and hear even more bells. Bell ringers stand on street corners. Sleigh bells jingle on horses' harnesses. Bell choirs perform Christmas music, but bells are even older than Christmas. The biblical King David was said to play the lyre, harp, and bells about 1,000 BC. In China, records exist of bells dating back to the 800s BC.

Bells have announced the arrival of fresh fish in ancient Greek markets, warned ships at sea of dangerous waters, alerted people in cities of approaching enemies, and called people to worship all around the world. But one of the most enjoyable uses of bells is to make music. Here are some ways you hear musical bells during the holiday season:

'Choirs' of hand bells

Hand bells are played by snapping the wrist to make the clapper strike the side of the bell. By using a wide range of bell sizes to make differently pitched sounds, tunes can be played by groups of bell ringers. Players may have many more than just two bells (one for each hand) to play.

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The Wesley Bell Ringers at Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City travel around the country giving concerts each summer. Their 24 members (all high-schoolers) play 160 bells. The players in the middle range have two bells with the natural notes. They are also in charge of bells for the sharps and flats of those two notes, says bell-choir director Terry Waite.

Players in the higher ranges may have as many as a dozen bells under their charge. And four players cover all the bells in the lowest octave and a half. These players, who play the lowest notes, need the most strength. The largest (lowest-sounding) bells weigh up to 24 pounds apiece. "You don't hold those bells out in front of you," says Waite. That would be easy. "You have to hold them straight up in the air."

That's real heavy-metal music.

Chimes for Tchaikovsky

Sometimes bells are used as a musical instrument in an orchestra. In 1791, Nicholas Dalayrac added bells to his opera "Camille." Other composers later added bells, at specific pitches, to their musical works. Hand bells were costly and difficult to manage in an orchestra, so they were replaced by long metal tubes, called chimes, that are struck with a small hammer. The chimes are tuned to the notes played by other instruments in the orchestra.

One of the most popular pieces of orchestral music with bells is Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." It portrays a famous battle between Russian troops and Napoleon's army. At the end of the piece, bells are rung, just as bells rang out in Russia to celebrate their victory.

Carillons: bells that play tunes

Bell choirs require lots of people ringing hand bells to play tunes. For one person to play a tune using bells, you need another system. The idea of a carillon started when four bells were hung where their clappers could be "pulled" or activated in some other way to make the bells ring. These were often used in Europe to ring out the hour. Gradually, more bells were added, and the bells could play more tunes. By about 1480, the first keyboard had been invented to activate the bells. By the 1600s, carillons, or "singing towers," were popular across Europe.

Their popularity remained until the 20th century, when many European carillons were destroyed by war. Carillons came to the United States in 1922, when a set of bells was hung in the Church of Our Lady of Good Hope in Gloucester, Mass.

Today, 200 or more carillons exist throughout North America. A modern carillon must have at least 23 bells, to span two octaves of notes. The largest carillon in the world is at Riverside Church in New York City. It has 74 bells. The largest bell, weighing 20.5 tons, has the deepest tone in the world. The smallest bell weighs 10 pounds.

Carillons are played by a carillonneur, who sits at an instrument much like an organ keyboard, complete with foot pedals. The carillonneur cups his or her hands and uses the sides of the hands to press down on the levers. Pressing the lever pulls a wire, which pulls the clapper against the side of the bell. (See illustration on next page.) The foot pedals are used to play the biggest bells, since those take the most work. The lower the note, the bigger the bell and the clapper. According to Judy Huenneke, who plays the 18-bell "chime" at The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, it takes some effort to press the levers hard enough to move the clappers. "It's not too tiring for a 20-minute session," she says. "But when we recently gave some 45-minute concerts, I was pretty tired afterward."

Some modern carillons are electronic and don't require the same physical effort to play. In these carillons, each "bell" is actually a piece of bell metal that is struck by a tiny rod. The sound is then amplified electronically. Some automatic systems play the bells without any human around. But a good carillonneur will tell you that the automatic and electronic music will never replace the subtleties a good carillon player can add to the music by hand.

Jingle all the way

Small, round metal bells are often attached to horses' harnesses or to dancers' shoes or clothing to produce a jingling sound.

These hollow metal balls have a smaller metal ball inside that strikes the inside of the bells as they are shaken. These bells aren't tuned to create a particular note, but when you hear a horse with sleigh bells trotting along a snowy road, it's a special kind of music!

America's most famous bell

What came to be known as the Liberty Bell was cast in London in 1752 for the Pennsylvania Assembly. But the first time the bell was rung, it cracked. Philadelphia founders John Pass and John Stow recast the bell, which has a Biblical inscription on it: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." No one seemed to like the tone of the new bell, though.

The new bell was hung in the State House steeple and rung on special occasions: to proclaim the Declaration of Independence (1776), for example, and the death of Benjamin Franklin (1790). A hairline crack appeared sometime in 1835. Historians disagree about when the famous zigzag crack occurred. Many believe it happened on Washington's birthday in February 1846, the last time the bell was rung.

The bell became widely associated with liberty during the antislavery movement in the late 1830s. A patriotic folklore sprang up about the bell, which was put on display in Independence Hall in 1852. In 1976, it was moved to a nearby pavilion.

- Staff

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