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Decisions, decisions, ... 4 – Method naming

Decisions (by Yvonne Hall)Methods have names, as we discovered early in our ringing careers. It seems obvious because without names it would be more difficult. But how do they get them?

In the beginning

Methods have been given names since the early days of ringing but there was no universal system of naming until the Central Council set about creating one. Ringing was essentially local, though there were books on ringing and some information was exchanged between centres of change ringing. Some methods had more or less universally agreed names but others did not, and words that currently have specific meanings like Surprise or Delight were used very loosely.

To bring order to this situation, the committee responsible devised a systematic structure to classify methods. It was based on ideas that already existed but tidied up to fit into a more consistent structure. Methods were classified as either principles (where all bells do the same work) or methods (where one or more hunt bells do the same work every lead). Each of these was further subdivided into categories based on the structure (ie the location of places within a lead). As noted in the previous article the categories have since been modified but we still have the familiar three part names that came from the categorisation – specific + type + stage (eg Cambridge + Surprise + Minor).

Naming is a privilege

A central naming scheme only works if everyone uses the same name once it has been given. That makes naming a new method a privilege, because once a method has been named it can’t be renamed, and nor can the name be used for another method (unless it is an extension of it to another stage, which I will discuss later). So who should decide on the name of a new method?

At first the Council retained the right to name new methods for itself and it renamed some existing methods whose former names it thought unsuitable. But later it stepped back from this autocratic position and allowed the band that rings the first peal of a method to name it (but it retained the right to change any name considered to be unsuitable).

Since then the criteria have been broadened, and the Decisions currently specify two criteria for naming a new method – either ring it in a peal or (for Doubles and Minor) ring an extent of it.It seems quite reasonable to restrict the privilege of naming given the permanency of the effect. Requiring it to be rung in a performance is one way to do that. Of course that raises the question of what type of performance. It is notable that the current criteria exclude performances shorter than peals, such as date touches and quarter peals (which I will discuss in a later article).

Performer or creator?

It seems natural to grant the naming right to whoever introduces the method to ringing, but are the first performers the only ones who can make that claim? Where a method has been specifically created by a peal composer, to enable the composition to achieve a particular result, for example because of its musical or splicing qualities, would it not be more logical for the composer who devised the method to name it, since the new methods are effectively components of the peal composition?

Often the composer and deviser of the methods is a member of the band that first rings them, but this may not be so. For example if the first attempt were lost and another band then rang the composition and/or the methods they could give them different names. Does that seem fair?

Enforcing complete secrecy until the composition with new methods had been successfully rung could avoid the situation, though it might be hard to achieve. But do we want to encourage secrecy, or would a more open culture be more in keeping with the spirit of ringing?

Unique classification

Another naming issue is the desire for methods to be uniquely classified. That makes things tidier, and was almost certainly one of the goals motivating the Legitimate Methods Committee when it first set about classifying and renaming methods. Since then great care has always been taken to maintain separation between categories whenever a new classification was added. As a result when you ring a new method although you can give it any (unused) specific name you like, the classification rules determine its family name (Plain, Surprise, Differential, etc). That works pretty well almost all of the time because most people broadly want to ring the same sort of things that have already been rung. But it can cause problems when ringers want to do something new and conceptually different.

As we saw in the previous article the strict classification system can force some methods to be categorised – and hence named – in ways that may not reflect the intention of those who created them, by forcing ‘round pegs into square holes’ and maybe forcing a family of round pegs into several different square holes.


If we went back to basics there are two completely different ways we could think about naming and categorising methods.

Option A (what we have now) starts with methods that exist in their own right. Composers select methods to build their compositions from the publicly available repertoire. If they want to use new methods then they add them to the public repertoire.

Option B starts with compositions. Composers structure their compositions using various components, and name the components to make their compositions easier to learn and ring. Where composers use the same components as other composers have done they re-use the names to make things simpler for themselves as well as for ringers and conductors but otherwise they give suitable names to any components that don’t already have a name in common use.

Although these options are radically different in concept, in practice there is a huge amount of overlap assuming that everyone has ready access to lists of methods/components that have already been given names. The observable behaviour under the two regimes (give or take any mistakes) will be identical as long as composers stick to types of method that have already been defined.

The difference comes when composers use components of types that haven’t already been defined. With no precedent to follow the composer will describe the new components in whatever way seems most logical, and will generally reflect the nature of the new components in the way they are named (for example the link methods mentioned in the previous article).

If other composers follow suit with similar compositions using the new type of component, and the naming makes sense, then they are likely to follow it (because it makes life simpler for them and for everyone else).

Option B may seem strange to us, partly because it is different from what we are used to and partly because in most ‘ordinary’ ringing we just ring plain courses or touches so simple that the composition seems incidental, so we focus on the methods. But is ‘ordinary’ ringing, which invariably involves the same old methods, a good guide for how to handle innovation, which is not ‘ordinary’?

So what?

In this article I have tried to dig beneath the skin of naming and classification, seeking insights that might be helpful when trying to resolve the clashes between the desire for rigid classification on the one hand and the need for a better approach to handling innovation on the other. To a significant degree this seems to hang on what things are called.

In the next article I will look at the problems of extension, where related methods at different stages share a name.

 John Harrison 2016 (Cartoon by Yvonne Hall)

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


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