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 Is change ringing music? 

This is one of those perennial questions. Presumably it is prompted by the fact that you can’t play ‘ordinary’ tunes on tower bells, not by ringing them full circle anyway. Dictionary definitions tend to talk about melody (a rhythmical and otherwise agreeable succession of tones) and harmony (an accordant combination of simultaneous tones). A lot of conventional music doesn’t include harmony, so let’s focus on melody. Does ringing provide a rhythmic and agreeable succession of tones? It certainly should be rhythmic, and if it isn’t, you should blame the performers, not what they are performing. What about an agreeable succession? It sounds rather subjective. Does not liking Schoenberg mean it isn’t music? What if you like it and I don’t?

Back in the 1960s I went to a talk in Bracknell on computer generated music. The presenter started by asking the audience what music was. The one I remember was “It’s music if you can tell that there is a wrong note when it is played”. That clearly links music to the human mind, but to our in-built sense of what ‘fits’, rather than to personal taste. The presenter went on to explain that music occupied the middle ground between sound sequences that were random and those that were completely predictable. His subjective explanation was that there must be some relationship between successive sounds to provide coherence to the overall sequence, but that too much predictability leads to boredom.

He went on to demonstrate how a judicious mix of rules and randomness could produce something that sounded like Mozart on an off day. At the time, I didn’t make a connection with change ringing, but I later realised that it too fits this definition. Change ringing imposes two constraints on the sequence of sounds. Every note must appear once (and only once) in each ‘bar’ of the music. No note may occur more than one beat earlier or later than it did in the preceding bar. Apart from that, anything is possible. There are thousands of different methods, and some of them sound distinctly different from others.

So back to the original question, changeringing clearly is music. A more relevant question might be whether ringers are musicians. As performers, they don’t have to control pitch or intonation, and they don’t need to read music. They don’t even need to know what note they are producing. But they are still responsible for timing, something that is far more difficult to achieve when swinging half a ton of metal than say moving fingers on a keyboard. Since timing (or as we call it striking) is critical to the whole performance, ringers need to be every bit as conscientious performers as other musicians.

But if some ringers don’t see themselves as musicians, and don’t feel responsible for the musical quality of the performance, what will their performance be like?

Further proof that ringing is music comes from the musicians themselves. Last year I was asked to talk to the annual meeting of the Southeast region of Making Music  (aka National Federation of Music Societies). The talk, and two performances of change ringing on handbells, went down very well, and I was then asked to write a series of four one page articles for their newsletter.

John Harrison (September 2009) 

See the Ringing World article about the talk 

See the Articles for Making Music SE Newsletter 

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