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Decisions, decisions, ... 3 – Methods

Decisions (by Yvonne Hall)The Decisions on methods perform the important function of providing a clear framework for exchanging information about methods, which would be much harder to do concisely and unambiguously without an agreed language and set of constructs.

Definition and classification

The Decisions define the terminology used, giving precise meanings to technical terms like row, change, lead head, lead end, cross section, stage, hunt bell, working bell, round block, and so on. There’s a bit more to it than that of course, since change ringing can get quite complex when you want to tie things down precisely.

They also describe a classification scheme, based on sets of common characteristics, which is used to group methods into different families (for example Bob, Treble Bob, Surprise or principle).

The classifications have evolved over the years. As new types of method have been devised the classifications have been extended and refined to describe what has been rung. In addition, some categories of method that used to have separate classifications have been merged where the distinction no longer seemed useful, with the old class name often being absorbed into the method name (eg ‘Court’ in Double Norwich Court Bob Major).

If the Decisions on methods provide a useful service why are they criticised? There are two broad reasons, one is that they impose some arbitrary constraints and the other is that they are ‘prescriptive rather than descriptive’, so let’s look at each.

Constraints on methods

No more than four consecutive blows in the same place in a plain course (except Minimus). – This rule became notorious during the Olympic year because it implied that Five Rings Triples – the method specially commissioned from musician Howard Skempton to mark the event – was not really a method. Making very long places is not an endearing feature of a method, but is that sufficiently worse than other unattractive features to merit being banned? And what is special about four places, rather than three or five or any other number?

Plain course must be divisible into equal leads – It is for most methods we ring but there are others for which it isn’t, including so called ‘rule based’ or ‘dynamic’ methods where what the bells do depends on the position of several bells, not just on the position of the Treble. The most famous example is Dixon’s Bob Minor, which was rung in the early 19th century, long before the Council was formed.

Plain course must be a true round block – This sounds reasonable – after all, why would anyone want to ring a false method? But people don’t usually ring plain courses in peals and there are methods with false plain courses that can produce true extents within a suitable composition. Methods that have fallen foul of this rule were never intended to be rung as plain courses but to be rung in peals of spliced where a few (true) leads can be used to achieve a desirable result, for example joining together different parts of a musical composition more effectively than using conventional methods. The peals are true, and surely it is the truth of the performance that matters, not the truth or falseness of blocks of rows that weren’t rung.

Method types and a Catch 22

The method types included in the Decisions are based on classes of method that have been rung (in peals), and the Decisions require (compliant) peals to be rung using methods that have already been codified in the Decisions. This sets up a ‘Catch 22’ where it is impossible to ring a (compliant) peal using any other type of method that has not yet been codified. This is one reason for the accusation of being prescriptive.

Could the Decisions be extended to describe other types of method? They could, and over the years they have been, but the change has usually followed bitter argument, and the innovative peals in which the methods were first rung were branded non-compliant when rung (or in earlier years were not accepted).

It isn’t practical to attempt to define all possible types of method. We probably can’t conceive everything that might be invented in the future, and even if we could, trying to define and classify all conceivable types would be massively complicated and quite a bit of the result may never be used. So it seems sensible to concentrate on classifying and describing things that have been rung or which people want to ring, where the insights gained by those who devised, composed and rang the methods may well help in formulating the classification.

Of course if classification is done after things have been rung then it would be necessary to remove the requirement for peals to contain methods that have already been classified, thus breaking the ‘Catch 22’. Then people could ring innovative methods without fear of their peals being non-compliant and it would remove pressure and dispute from the process of updating the method classifications to include them.

Methods that don’t fit

Inevitably with a tightly defined official classification of methods, sooner or later someone will devise methods that don’t fit. A good example was when ‘link methods’ were devised. They were intended to join together longer blocks of conventional methods to switch around the order of the bells between blocks in order to achieve specific musical effects. Their unusual structure enabled them to do this more rapidly than using conventional methods.

But these new methods were ‘round pegs’, that were difficult to classify using the ‘square holes’ of the Decisions. Some didn’t fit at all, and in an attempt to legitimise them a new classification of ‘non method block’ was added to the Decisions.

Needless to say, telling people that their new methods had to be called non-methods wasn’t any more popular than telling them that their peals weren’t really proper peals (as discussed in the last article). Some of the round pegs were squeezed into the square holes of existing classifications, but they couldn’t all be squeezed into the same holes. So what was devised as a family of new methods ended up spread around several classifications (including ‘non-method’).

More misfits

The introduction of non method blocks was intended as a catch-all for anything that didn’t fit within the confines of how the Decisions have classified methods so far, but it didn’t even do that. As noted above, there are methods where the sequence of changes varies depending on the position of individual bells, but in a non method block (or any class of method currently covered by the Decisions) the sequence of changes is fixed unless there is a call.

Another type of misfit is what are known as ‘jump methods’. Everything I’ve discussed so far uses conventional changes where bells move no more than one place at a time. This was originally a physical restriction imposed by the dynamics of swinging bells, and it led to the mathematical richness and complexity of change ringing as we know it. But methods have been rung where although most changes only move bells a place at a time, one or more bells may move more than one place. These are called jump changes and they are quite easy to do with light tower bells or with handbells. Those who have rung jump methods say that the experience is much the same as ringing conventional methods. In the past, peals of such methods had to be published as ‘miscellaneous performances’ to satisfy the rules in the Decisions.

When devising a classification system there is a conflict between keeping it tidy and consistent on the one hand and ensuring that it can cover (or be extended to cover) all the things that people might want to ring on the other. In the past the Decisions erred on the side of tidiness, even to the extent of excluding several things that had already been rung. Obviously this deters anyone wishing to ring other things. Should the balance now be moved in the other direction, towards inclusion rather than exclusion?

In the next article I will discuss method naming.



 John Harrison 2016 (Cartoon by Yvonne Hall)

See the current Decisions . Article first published in The Ringing World  in 2016 


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