Ringing in the season
Everywhere you listen these days - from street corners to church towers - you can hear bells
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.