This article is about the instrument. For other uses, see Bell (disambiguation).

Parts of a typical tower bell hung for swinging: 1. 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

struck idiophone
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 111.242
(Bells: Percussion vessels with the vibration weakest near the vertex)
Playing range

From very high to very low
Related instruments

Chimes, Cowbell, Handbell, Gong

A bell is a simple idiophone percussion instrument. Although bells come in many forms, most are made of metal cast in the shape of a hollow cup, whose sides form a resonator which vibrates in a single tone upon being struck. The strike may be made by a "clapper" or "uvula" suspended within the bell, by a separate mallet or hammer, or—in small bells—by a small loose sphere enclosed within the body of the bell.

Bells are usually made by casting metal, but small bells can also be made from ceramic or glass. Bells range in size from tiny dress accessories to church bells 5 metres tall, weighing many tons.

Historically, bells have been associated with religious rituals, 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.

A set of bells, hung in a circle for change ringing, is known as a ring or peal of bells.

A set of 23 bells spanning at least two octaves is a carillon.


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, 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]

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

Methods of ringing

Mechanism of a bell hung for English full-circle ringing. The bell can swing through a full circle in alternate directions.
The bells of St Bees Priory shown in the "down" position, in which they are normally left between ringing sessions.
The bells of St Bees Priory shown in the "up" position. When being rung they swing through a full circle from mouth upwards round to mouth upwards, and then back again.

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 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.

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.

Church and temple bells

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

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,[9] 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 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. Large suspended temple bells are known as bonshō. (See also ja:鈴, ja:梵鐘).

Bells in Buddhism and Hinduism

Hindu and Buddhist bells, called "Ghanta" 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.[10]


Main article: Bellfounding
This bronze bell dated from medieval times, depicts Saints Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist, and Thomas.[11] The Walters Art Museum.

The process of casting bells is called bellfounding, and in Europe dates to the 4th or 5th century.[12] The traditional metal for these bells is a bronze of about 23% tin.[13] 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.[14]


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.[15]

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.[16]

In historical times, before road, rail 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.


Further information: Strike tone

Bell shape and tuning

Spectrum of a Winchester Cathedral bell as analyzed by Jonathan Harvey using FFT.[17] "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.'"[18]  Play approximation  The strike tone is middle C, the hum tone an octave below.

"A bell is divided into the body or barrel, the ear or cannon, and the clapper or tongue. The lip or sound bow is that part where the bell is struck by the clapper."[19] The traditional profile (or shape), hollow cup with wide flaring lip, of a bell is determined by the acoustic properties sought.

According to Fuller-Maitland writing in Grove's dictionary of music and musicians: "Good tone means that a bell must be in tune with itself."[20] A bell is generally considered well-tuned if it corresponds to certain standards regarding its partials and thus proportions. These partials or elements of the sound of a bell are split up into hum (an octave below the named note, see subharmonic), strike tone (tap note, named note), tierce (minor third), quint (fifth), and nominal (octave). Further notes include the major third and perfect fifth in the second octave. "Whether a founder tunes the nominal or the strike note makes little difference, however, because the nominal is one of the main partials that determines the tuning of the strike note."[21] A heavy clapper brings out lower partials (clappers often being about 3% of a bell's mass), while a higher clapper velocity strengthens higher partials (0.4 m/s being moderate). The relative depth of the "bowl" or "cup" part of the bell also determines the number and strength of the partials in order to achieve a desired timbre.

Bells are generally around 80% copper and 20% tin (bell metal), with the tone varying according to material. Tone and pitch is also affected by the method in which a bell is struck. It will be noticed that Asian large bells are often bowl shaped but lack the lip and are often not free-swinging. Also note the special shape of Bianzhong bells, allowing two tones. The scaling or size of most bells to each other may be approximated by the equation for circular cylinders: f=Ch/D2, where h is thickness, D is diameter, and C is a constant determined by the material and the profile.[22] Previously tuned through chipping, bells are now tuned after casting with vertical lathes by paring out the inside to flatten or edge to sharpen, with sharpening best being avoided.[23]

The Erfurt bell (1497)[24] or any well-tuned bell:[20] strike note on E, with hum note an octave below, minor third, fifth, octave or nominal, and major third and perfect fifth in the second octave.

On the theory that pieces in major keys may better be accommodated, after many unsatisfactory attempts, in the 1980s, using computer modeling for assistance in design by scientists at the Technical University in Eindhoven, bells with a major-third profile were created by the Eijsbouts Bellfoundry in the Netherlands,[21] being described as resembling old Coke bottles[25] in that they have a bulge around the middle;[26] and in 1999 a design without the bulge was announced.[22] Although bells are cast to accurate patterns, variations in casting mean that a final operation of tuning is undertaken 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. Much experimentation and research 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 (see subharmonic), 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.[27] Bells are usually tuned via tuning forks and electronic stroboscopic tuning devices commonly called strobe tuners.

Clocks and chimes

Bells are also associated with clocks, indicating the hour by ringing. 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 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 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 bells

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

Usage as musical instruments

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. 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 bells

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

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.[29]

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.[30]

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.

Bell organizations

The following organizations promote the study, music, collection and/or preservation and restoration of bells.[31] Nation(s) covered are given in parenthesis.


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. "Bell". Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th Edition. 3. University Press. 1910. pp. 687–691. Retrieved 2012-02-01.
  2. 1 2 "bell, n.1", Oxford English Dictionary, 1st ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1887.
  3. EB (1878), p. 536.
  4. "bell, v.4", Oxford English Dictionary, 1st ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1887.
  5. 1 2 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. Herrera, Matthew D.Sanctus Bells: Their History and Use in the Catholic Church. San Luis Obispo: Tixlini Scriptorium, 2004.
  10. "Why do Hindus ring bell in temple". Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  11. "Bell with Saints Peter, Paul, John, and Thomas". The Walters Art Museum.
  12. Milham, Willis I. (1945). Time and Timekeepers, pp. 313–18.
  13. Cubberly, William H. (1989). "Metals". In Bakerjian, Ramon. Tool and manufacturing engineers handbook. Dearborn, MI: Society of Manufacturing Engineers. pp. 15–38. ISBN 978-0-87263-351-3.
  14. Jennings, Trevor (1988). Bellfounding. Princes Risborough, England: Shire. p. 8. ISBN 0-85263-911-2.
  15. Jennings (1988: 3; 10)
  16. Jennings (1988: 11)
  17. Roads, Curtis, ed. (1992). Harvey Jonathan. "Moruos Plango, Vivos Voco: A Realization at IRCAM", The Music Machine, p.92. ISBN 978-0-262-68078-3. Harvey added, "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."
  18. Downes, Michael (2009). Jonathan Harvey: Song offerings and White as jasmine, p. 22. ISBN 978-0-7546-6022-4.
  19. Beach, Frederick Converse and Rines, George Edwin (eds.) (1907). The Americana, p.BELL-SMITH—BELL. Scientific American. .
  20. 1 2 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. 1 2 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.
  22. 1 2 Rossing, Thomas D. (2000). Science of Percussion Instruments, p. 139. ISBN 978-981-02-4158-2.
  23. Musical Association (1902), p. 30.
  24. Musical Association (1902). Proceedings of the Musical Association, Volume 28, p. 32. Whitehead & Miller, ltd.
  26. "Major third bell",
  27. Jennings (1988: 21)
  28. "The Liberty Bell" (pdf). National Park Service. Retrieved 2010-08-11.
  29. Alan Thorne & Robert Raymond, Man on the Rim: The Peopling of the Pacific (ABC Books, 1989), pp. 166–67
  30. Cultural China website – "Bronze Chime Bells of Marquis Yi"
  31. Rama, Jean-Pierre (1993). Cloches de France et d’ailleurs, Le Temps Apprivoisé, pp.229-230. Paris, France. ISBN 2283581583.


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.

Further reading

External links

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