Bell (instrument)

Bell (instrument)
Parts of a Bell.svg
Parts of a typical bell: 1. yoke, 2. crown, 3. head, 4. shoulder, 5. waist, 6. sound ring, 7. lip, 8. mouth, 9. clapper, 10. bead line
Percussion instrument
Classification hand percussion
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 111.242
(Percussion idiophone)
Playing range
From very high to very low
Related instruments
Chimes, Cowbell, Gong

A bell is a simple sound-making device. The bell is a percussion instrument and an idiophone. Its form is usually a hollow, cup-shaped object, which resonates upon being struck. The striking implement can be a tongue suspended within the bell, known as a clapper, a small, free sphere enclosed within the body of the bell or a separate mallet or hammer.

Bells are usually made of cast metal, but small bells can also be made from ceramic or glass. Bells can be of all sizes: from tiny dress accessories to church bells weighing many tons. Historically, many 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.


Church and temple bells

Church with belltower

In the Western world, its most classical form is a church bell or town bell, which is hung within a tower and sounded by having the entire bell swung by ropes, whereupon an internal hinged clapper strikes the body of the bell (called a free-swinging bell). A set of bells, hung in a circle for change ringing, is known as a ring of bells or peal of bells.

"Bell house at Shimoda" in Japan (lithograph copy of daguerreotype image, 1856)

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[1], 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 the Russian Orthodox bell ringing the entire bell is never moving, only the clapper. A special complex system of ropes is developed and used individually for every belltower. Some ropes (the smaller ones) are played by hand, the bigger ropes are played by foot.

Bells in Japanese religion

Japanese Shintoist and Buddhist bells are used in religious ceremonies. Suzu, 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. See also Kane (musical instrument) (ja:鈴, ja:梵鐘).

Bells in Buddhism

Buddhist bells, called Ghanta in Sanskrit, are used in religious ceremonies. See singing bowls.

Bell construed as a cause for war

On January 15, 1602 (Keichō 7), a fire broke out at Hōkō-ji, Buddhist temple complex in Kyoto. The great image of the Buddha and the structure housing the statue, the Daibutsu-den, were both consumed by the flames.[2][3]

Temple bell at Hōkō-ji.
Inscription on bell at Hōkō-ji

In 1610, Toyotomi Hideyori decided to sponsor rebuilding the Hōkō-ji and he also decided to order a great bell cast in bronze.[4][3]

On August 24, 1614 (Keichō 19), the huge new bronze bell was cast successfully.[5] Dedication ceremonies were scheduled, but at the last minute, Tokugawa Ieyasu forbade the ceremonies to take place because he construed inscriptions on the bell to have been a personal affront:

[T]he tablet over the Daibatsu-den and the bell bore the inscription "Kokka ankō" (meaning "the country and the house, peace and tranquility"), and at this Tokugawa Ieyasu affected to take umbrage, alleging that it was intended as a curse on him for the character 安 (an, "peace") was placed between the two characters composing his own name 家康 ("ka-kō", "house tranquility") [suggesting subtly perhaps that peace could only be attained by Ieyasu's dismemberment?]... This incident of the inscription was, of course, a mere pretext, but Ieyasu realized that he could not enjoy the power he had usurped as long as Hideyori lived, and consequently, although the latter more than once dispatched his kerei Katagiri Kastumoto to Sunpu Castle with profuse apologies, Ieyasu refused to be placated."[4][6]

This contrived dispute led to the Siege of Osaka (大坂の役 Ōsaka no Eki?, or, more commonly, 大坂の陣 Ōsaka no Jin), which was a series of battles between armies of the Tokugawa shogunate and the samurai of the Toyotomi clan. The siege lasted through 1615. It is conventionally divided into two stages—the Winter Campaign and the Summer Campaign. In the end, the total destruction of the Toyotomi eliminated the last major opposition to the shogunate which would come to dominate Japan for the next 250 years.[7]


The process of casting bells is called bellfounding or bellmaking, and in Europe dates to the 4th or 5th century.[8] The traditional metal for these bells is a bronze of about 23% tin.[9] 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, for its economy over bronze, but was found not to be durable and manufacture ceased in the 1870s.[10]


Small bells were originally made with the lost wax process but large bells are cast mouth down, in a two-part mould clamped to a base-plate.[11] 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.[12] In earlier times, before road transport of large bells was possible, a pit may have been 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.


Bells are made to exact formulas, so that given the diameter it is possible to calculate every dimension, and its musical note, or tone. The frequency of a bell's note varies with the square of its thickness, and inversely with its diameter. Much experimentation has been devoted to determining the exact shape that will give the best tone. 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". "Tuned bells" are worked after casting to produce a precise note. The elements of the sound of a bell are split up into hum, second partial, tierce, quint and nominal/naming note. The bell's strongest overtones are tuned to be at octave intervals below the nominal note, but other notes also need to be brought into their proper relationship.[13] Bells are usually tuned via tuning forks and electronic stroboscopic tuning devices commonly called a Strobe tuner.

Bell towers

Bells are also associated with clocks, indicating the hour by ringing. Indeed, the word clock comes from the Latin word cloca, meaning bell. 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 many languages the same word can mean both "clock" and "bell".

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

Notable bells

  • The Great Bell of Dhammazedi (1484) may have been the largest bell ever made. It was lost in a river in Burma after being removed from a temple by the Portuguese in 1608. It is reported to have weighed about 300 tonnes (330 tons).
  • The Tsar bell by the Motorin Bellfounders is the largest bell still in existence. It weighs 160 tonnes (180 tons), but it was never rung and broke in 1737. It is on display in Moscow, Russia, inside the Kremlin.
  • The Great Mingun Bell is the largest functioning bell. It is located in Mingun, Burma, and weighs 90 tonnes (100 tons).
  • The Gotenba Bell is the largest functioning swinging bell, weighing 79,900 pounds (36,200 kg). It is located in a tourist resort in Gotenba, Japan. Hung in a freestanding frame, and rung by hand. Cast by Eijsbouts in 2006.
  • The World Peace Bell was the largest functioning swinging bell until 2006. It is located in Newport, Kentucky, United States, cast by Paccard Foundry of France. The bell itself weighs 66,000 pounds (30,000 kg) while with clapper and supports the total weight which swings when the bell is tolled is 89,390 pounds (40,550 kg).
  • The Bell of King Seongdeok is the largest extant bell in Korea. The full Korean name means "Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok the Great." It was also known as the Bell of Bongdeoksa Temple, where it was first housed. The bell weighs about 25 tons and was originally cast in 771 CE. It is now stored in the National Museum of Gyeongju.
  • Pummerin in Vienna's Stephansdom is the most famous bell in Austria and the fifth largest in the world.
  • The St. Petersglocke, in the local dialect of Cologne also called "Dicke Pitter" (fat Peter), is a bell in Germany's Cologne Cathedral. It weighs 24 tons and was cast in 1922. It is the largest functioning free-swinging bell in the world that swings around the top. (The Gotenba Bell and the World Peace Bell swing around the center of gravity, which is more like turning than swinging. So, depending on the point of view, the St. Petersglocke may be up to now the largest free-swinging bell in the world.)
  • Maria Dolens, the bell for the Fallen in Rovereto (Italy) weighs 22.6 tons.
  • The South West tower of St Paul's Cathedral in London, England, houses Great Paul, the largest bell at 16.5 tons in the British Isles. One can hear Great Paul booming out over Ludgate Hill at 1300 every day.
  • Big Ben is the third largest bell in the British Isles, after Great Paul (St Paul's cathedral, City of London) and Great George (Anglican cathedral, Liverpool). It is the hour bell of the Great Clock in the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster, the home of the Houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom.
  • The Dom Tower in the city of Utrecht, the Netherlands, houses the second largest free-swinging bell of Europe, the Salvator, weighing 8.2 tons, cast in 1505 by Geert van Wou.
  • Great Tom is the bell that hangs in Tom Tower (designed by Christopher Wren) of Christ Church, Oxford. It was cast in 1680, and weighs over 6 tons. Great Tom is still rung 101 times at 21:05 every night to signify the 101 original scholars of the college.
  • The Liberty Bell is a 2,080 pounds (940 kg)[14] American bell of great historic significance, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It previously hung in Independence Hall and was rung on July 4, 1776 to mark American independence.
  • Little John, named after the character from the legends of Robin Hood is the bell within the Clock Tower of Nottingham Council House. It was the deepest toned clock bell in the United Kingdom until Great Peter of York Minster was incorporated into a new clock chime to celebrate the Queen Mother's centenary. Great Peter is deeper than Little John by only a few Hz. The sound of Little John is said to be heard over the greatest distance of any bell in the UK, occasionally on quiet days being heard in Derby.[citation needed]
  • Sigismund is a bell in the Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, Poland, cast in 1520. It is rung only on very significant national occasions.
  • The Maria Gloriosa in Erfurt, cast by Geert van Wou, is considered to be one of Germany's, and also Europe's, most beautiful medieval bells, serving as a model for many other bells.[citation needed]
  • The Lutine Bell, named after HMS Lutine, weighs 106 pounds (48 kg) and bears the inscription "ST. JEAN - 1779". It rests in Lloyd's of London Underwriting Room where it used to be struck when news of an overdue ship arrived - once for the loss of a ship (i.e. bad news, last in 1979), and twice for her return (i.e. good news, last in 1989).

Usage as musical instruments

Some bells are used as musical instruments, such as carillons, (clock) chimes, or ensembles of bell-players, called bell choirs, using hand-held bells of varying tones. A "ring of bells" is a set of 4 to twelve bells or more 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."

Ancient Chinese bells

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 to 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.[15]

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[16]

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 Skrabalai

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 bells

Whereas the church and temple bells called to mass or religious service, bells were used on farms for more secular signaling. 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 bell

In Scotland up until the 19th century it was the tradition to ring a Dead bell, a form of hand bell, at the death of an individual and at the funeral.


See also

The bell as depicted in fine art: This triptych depicts Benkei carrying the giant bell of Mii-dera Buddhist temple up Hei-zan Mountain. -- Chikanobu Toyohara, c. 1890.
Note, see above: Compare this 19th-century woodblock print with the 21st-century photo-image.


  1. ^ Herrera, Matthew D.Sanctus Bells: Their History and Use in the Catholic Church. San Luis Obispo: Tixlini Scriptorium, 2004.
  2. ^ Ponsonby-Fane, p. 290.
  3. ^ a b Titsingh, p. 409.
  4. ^ a b Ponsonby-Fane, p. 292.
  5. ^ Hōkō-ji bell, JP: Nagasaki University, 19th century, .
  6. ^ Titsingh, p. 410.
  7. ^ Murdock, James (1903). A History of Japan, pp. 541–2.
  8. ^ Milham, Willis I. (1945). Time and Timekeepers, p. 313-318.
  9. ^ Cubberly, William H. (1989). "Metals". In Bakerjian, Ramon. Tool and manufacturing engineers handbook. Dearborn, MI: Society of Manufacturing Engineers. pp. 15–38. ISBN 9780872633513. 
  10. ^ Jennings, Trevor (1988). Bellfounding. Princes Risborough, England: Shire. p. 8. ISBN 0-85263-911-2. 
  11. ^ Jennings (1988: 3; 10)
  12. ^ Jennings (1988: 11)
  13. ^ Jennings (1988: 21)
  14. ^ "The Liberty Bell" (pdf). National Park Service. Retrieved 2010–08–11. 
  15. ^ Alan Thorne & Robert Raymond, Man On The Rim: The Peopling of the Pacific (ABC Books, 1989), pp.166-67
  16. ^ Cultural China website -- "Bronze Chime Bells of Marquis Yi"


This bell is called Mii-dera no Bansho (三井寺の晩鐘), the evening bell at Mii-dera, a Buddhist temple in Otsu, which is near Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, Japan. This image shows the hanging wooden beam positioned to strike the outer side of the resonating surface.

External links

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