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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.


Church and temple bells

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.

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.

, 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.]] 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, 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.


Japanese religion bells

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).

Buddhist bells

Buddhist bells are used in religious ceremonies. See also Tibetan tingsha bells.

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.[1]

In 1610, Toyotomi Hideyori decided to sponsor rebuilding the Hōkō-ji and he also decided to order a great bell cast in bronze.[2]

On August 24, 1614 (Keichō 19), the huge new bronze bell was cast successfully.-- see 19th century photo of Hōkō-ji bell-- see old photo of bell 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."[3]

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.[4]


The process of casting bells is called bellmaking or bellfounding, and in Europe dates to the 4th or 5th century.[5] The traditional metal for these bells is a bronze of about 23% tin. 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. Bells are always cast mouth down.

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.

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 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 Myanmar after being removed from a temple by the Portuguese in 1608. It is reported to have been about 300 tonnes in weight.
  • The Tsar bell by the Motorin Bellfounders is the largest bell still in existence. It weighs 160 tonnes, 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, Myanmar, and weighs 90 tonnes (200,000 lb).
  • The Gotenba Bell is the largest functioning swinging bell, weighing 79,900 lb. 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 of France. The bell itself weighs 66,000 lb while with clapper and supports the total weight which swings when the bell is tolled is 89,390 lb.
  • 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 "Decke 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 (TN - Italy) weighs 22.6 tons.
  • The South West tower of St Paul's Cathedral in London, England, houses Great Paul, the largest bell (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.
  • 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 six 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 an 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. Template:Fact
  • 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.Template:Fact
  • The Lutine Bell, named after HMS Lutine, weighs 106 lb. 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).

Bells 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..

Ancient Chinese bells

The ancient Chinese bronze chime bells called bianzhong or zhong / zeng (鐘) are among the highest achievements of Chinese bronze casting technology. These chime bells were used as polyphonic musical instruments and some of these bells have been dated at between 2000 to 3600 years old.

The secret of the design and the method of casting zhong bells -- which was known only to the Chinese in antiquity -- was lost in later generations. It was not fully rediscovered and understood until 1978, when 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, who died ca. 430BCE. Yi was ruler of Zeng, one of the Warring States which at the time of his death was under control of the Chǔ state. This region is now part of the present-day Hubei province.

Although tuned bells have been created and used for musical performance in many cultures, zhong are unique among all other types of cast bells in several respects. They have a lens-shaped (rather than circular) section and the bell mouth has a distinctive "cutaway" profile, and this special shape gives zhong bells the remarkable 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.[6].

The bells of Marquis Yi -- which are still fully playable after almost 2500 years -- cover a range of slightly less than five octaves but thanks to their twin-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[7]

These bells usually have inscriptions on them from which scholars used as references for studying ancient Chinese writings (also known as Bronzeware script). Another related ancient Chinese musical instrument is called qing ( pinyin qing4) but it was made of stone instead of metal.


Konguro'o is a small bell, which as well as Djalaajyn firstly had the utilitarian purposes and only after artistic ones. Konguro'o sounded by the time of moving to the new places, being fastened to the horse harness it created very specific "smart" sound background. Konguro'o also hanged on the neck of leader goat, which leads the flock of sheep in some definite direction. That is why in folk memory almost magic sound of konguro'o was associated with nomadic mode of life.

To make this instrument Kyrgyz foremen used copper, bronze, iron and brass. They also decorated it with artistic carving and covered with silver. Sizes of the instruments might vary in considerable 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.

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.

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 song The Bells of Rhymney.

Gallery of bells

The bell within the Clock Tower colloquially known as Big Ben.  
Mingun Bell weighs 55,555 viss, or 90 tonnes.  
Philadelphia's Liberty Bell.  
[[Image:|center|border|130x130px|Tsar Bell, by the Motorins. ]]
Tsar Bell, by the Motorins.  
[[Image:|center|border|130x130px|The Zygmunt (Sigismund) Bell in Kraków, Poland. ]]
The Zygmunt (Sigismund) Bell in Kraków, Poland.  
[[Image:|center|border|130x130px|The World Peace Bell in Kentucky. ]]
[[Image:|center|border|130x130px|St. Petersglocke (with person for scale). ]]
St. Petersglocke (with person for scale).  
Bronze jingyun bell cast in the year 711 AD, Xi'an.  
[[Image:|center|border|130x130px|Chinese bells from the ancient Warring States, Hubei Provincial Museum, Wuhan, China. ]]
Chinese bells from the ancient Warring States, Hubei Provincial Museum, Wuhan, China.  
La Piagnona, Florence, Italy.  


  1. Ponsonby-Fane, p. 290; Titsingh, p. 409.
  2. Ponsonby-Fane, p. 292; Titsingh, p. 409.
  3. Ponsonby-Fane, p. 292; Titsingh, p. 410.
  4. Murdock, James. (1903). A History of Japan, pp. 541-542.
  5. Milham, Willis I. (1945). Time and Timekeepers, p. 313-318.
  6. Alan Thorne & Robert Raymond, Man On The Rim: The Peopling of the Pacific (ABC Books, 1989), pp.166-67
  7. Cultural China website -- "Bronze Chime Bells of Marquis Yi"


See also

External links


Percussion portal


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