Unlike the bells in a carillon or chime, change ringing bells are hung so that they can swing a full 360 degrees. Each bell is attached to a wheel with a rope connected to it, which enables a single person to control it, though even the smallest bell weighs a few hundred pounds.
The Art of Change Ringing
Bells were first hung this way in the seventeenth century, the full wheel enabling ringers for the first time to control when the bells sounded. However, it takes about two seconds for a bell to swing through its arc and ring. Because of this, change ringing bells cannot be used to play ordinary melodic music, so change ringing was developed to achieve an orderly and musical sound, making use of the ringers' ability to control the bells.
Change ringing requires that all of the bells in the set be struck once before any one of them can be struck a second time. The sound produced when each has been struck once is called a "change". Ringers have developed "methods" based on set rules for changing the order of pairs of bells so that they can ring long sequences of changes, no two of which have the bells in the same order.
Change ringing can also be practiced on hand bells, and in fact hand bell ringing preceded tower bell ringing at Kalamazoo College by several years. Since hand bells are much easier to control than tower bells, ringers replace the challenge of bell control by ringing two bells each, keeping track of the position of both.
Learning to Ring
Several individual rope-handling lessons are required to learn to control a tower bell. Once learners are able to safely control a bell without assistance, they begin to practice with the band, refining their bell control and timing. Beginning with "call changes", in which a conductor announces each time the order of the bells changes, learners progress to method ringing, in which they are required to memorize simple and then increasingly complex patterns. It can take three to six months or more to develop the control, timing, and concentration required for ringing simple methods.
Change ringing offers limitless opportunities for learning and it can become a lifetime hobby.
Many ringers measure their experience and ability by ringing peals and quarter-peals, continuous ringing of a prescribed number of changes. A peal is defined as 5,000 or more changes without stopping or repeating changes and takes about three hours to ring. Quarter peals, which take about 45 minutes, are more accessible to most ringers and more frequently rung. Nearly 1000 quarter peals have been rung at Kalamazoo College.
Links for More Information
Much more information on the history, theory, and practice of change ringing can be found at these and other sites.