Bells date back to 2000 B.C. and were first rung in China. The Chinese rung them for worshiping, making announcements, and for alerting people during times of danger. They also spread the use of metal bells to other countries such as Japan, India, and Thailand for their practices of Buddhism and Hinduism.
The Italian bishop named Palanius was the first to use metal bells as part of Christian ceremonies. This spread among the Christian monks in Italy and throughout Europe. The Catholics built enormous and louder bells during the Renaissance period while the Gothic period ushered in embellished and massive church bells.
Table of Contents
- Basic Types
- Different Purposes of Bell
- Famous Bells
The Church Bell
Perhaps these are most common in Christian Churches, and if you live near one or attend one regularly, you have surely heard the bell ringing. Traditionally, they were used as a call to prayer or a call to worship, but prior to modern communication, they were simply a way to call the community together for all sorts of purposes, such as weddings or funerals.
When someone says “bell,” the church bell is likely what comes to mind or, at least, its shape. You might describe it as a “cup” shape, but it widens considerably as they flare out at the bottom. Given their historical purpose, these bells are commonly hung at the top of a church tower so that the sound travels to the entire town. They are suspended from a swinging headstock that is commonly attached to a rope. When the rope is yanked on, the bell swings and bangs against the metal clapper that hangs down in the center, which will generate sound.
A carillon is a musical instrument that, like the church bell, is housed in the bell tower of various churches and municipal buildings. This is actually the second largest musical instrument still in existence, next to the largest pipe organs. It is usually comprised of 23 cast bronze bells with the traditional cup shape, which are most of the time controlled by a keyboard. The keys mechanically activate various levers and wires that connect to the bell’s clappers that will strike the bell.
With this setup, the performer or operator can control the intensity of notes and play melodies or chords. Concert carillons typically have a minimum of 48 bells, and while these are not super common, there are a number of notable locations, such as churches and universities, that do use them.
Hand bells look like church bells on a much smaller scale. Traditionally, you will see them with a metal cup attached to something such as a leather handle. To play them, you have to hold them upright or upside down and move your wrists, which will make the clapper on the inside strike the interior of the bell. Larger bells may consist of wooden or plastic handles, and in bell ensembles, players may hold more than one bell in their hand.
Unlike the clappers on church bells, which swing freely, the clappers on hand bells typically swing back and forth in a single direction. Many of them also have a mechanism or a spring that holds the clapper away from the casting after it strikes, so it’s all in the wrist. They can be used in performance, but are also great for summoning people together or getting their attention.
This is essentially a church bell that is found in the tower of a school. When it’s time to begin classes in the morning, change classes during the day, or dismiss students from school, the bell will likely be rung to signal these events. These began as physical bells, and even electronically-operated physical bells, but many schools have switched to an electronic bell sound that is heard through an intercom system.
Patents for bicycle bells go back as early as 1877, and their purpose has remained the same ever since – to warn pedestrians and other cyclists that you are coming through. Some jurisdictions even require you to have these. Most often, bicycle bells are mounted on handlebars and operated by a lever that you flick with your thumb. The bell is enclosed, but inside are two loose metal discs that rattle when you hit that lever. No matter how you feel about having the equipment on your bike, it certainly beats having to yell at people.
Doorbells come in many forms, although the bell itself isn’t used very commonly now, and many doorbells are sounded electronically. The basic function, however, has remained the same. When you approach somebody’s door, you press a button, and this triggers a bell on the inside of the building, letting the person know that you are at their doorstep. The first doorbells were actually mechanical and involved pulling a cord. Old doorbells also had a physical, cup-shaped bell that would sound when triggered.
Alarm Clock Bells
That classic alarm clock sound that is now programmed into most smartphones used to be generated by ringing bells that would clang together rapidly when the time was right. Commonly, these were little upside-down bowls that would sit on top of the block with a little hammer in between.
Maybe you used the cowbell at some point during your elementary music class, but the original cowbell was a tool used by herdsmen. While a wide variety of species wore the cowbell, it was used extensively with cattle. Cows that roam freely still need to be kept track of, and the cowbell helped, but it was also used to scare off predators. The size of the cowbell would likely depend on the species and size of the animal.
Unlike the traditional cup shape that many bells have, the cowbell is something like a slightly tapered square that is hollow with a clapper inside. Noise is produced when you shake the instrument. However, other cowbells are clapperless and require a mallet or a stick to generate the sound.
Bermuda Carriage Bell
Similar to the bicycle bell, the Bermuda carriage bell was rung to warn pedestrians, but you would find this bell on the floor of a vehicle. This bowl-sized bell had a plunger that extended above the bell and was operated with the foot.
The agogô bell is a fairly old instrument that originated in Africa and it’s one that produces an extremely high note. The instrument is comprised of anywhere between two and four conical shaped or truncated cones that are all linked together by a U-shaped piece of metal. The cones on an agogô bell are sized differently, and the sound that the instrument produces will depend on which cone is hit. You can hear the agogô bell in some traditional African Yoruba music.
The Altar Bell
Altar bells are a handheld type of bell that can be a single bell or a set of bells, all of which would be linked together. They are most commonly used at Catholic churches simply to create joyful noise and give thanks to the Lord, and you will usually find them at the altar. They can be simple or intricate and are often made of brass or bronze
Also called a concierge bell or a service bell, the call bell is the bell that you would find on service desks and other counters where you might need to get the attention of an attendant. They are commonly seen at such places as hotels and restaurants, where they used to be attached to every table.
A chime is a bell instrument consisting of fewer than 23 bells in most cases. This instrument goes all the way back to 1487. Typically, bells are suspended from a bar and generate sound by clashing together, either by movement or by being struck. They also call these kinds of instruments “tubular” bells because of their shape.
Crotal bells were small, round bells that typically consisted of two halves of bronze that were soldered together. Inside would be a pea-sized ball that would bang against the metal and generate the sound. They were most commonly used on horse-drawn vehicles for the same reason that people use bicycle bells, which is to warn others that a vehicle is coming.
Shapewise, there is nothing unusual about the dead bell. It’s got the tradition cup shape of most bells, but what makes the dead bell different is what it was used for. Belief in the supernatural was common during the Middle Ages, and people often attributed special powers to certain objects such as a bell. Dead bells were primarily used in England in conjunction with death and as a way to ward off evil spirits.
Electric bells have been used for everything from railroad crossings and telephones to schools and burglar alarms. They function by means of an electromagnet and an electric current that produces a repetitive clanging or buzzing noise. Old electric bells consisted of a round bulb and a piece of metal with a little pea-size ball at the end of it. When the electric current was applied, this piece of metal would move back and forth super fast against the metal bulb. Sometimes this is so fast that it sounds more like a buzz than a bell.
Reminiscent of Christmas time, sleigh bells or jingle bells produce that familiar jingle that you hear throughout the holidays. The actual musical instrument consists of a wooden handle with a number of small balls attached to it that when shaken produce that classic sound. The balls are typically just pieces of sheet metal that have been bent into a sphere, and inside there is another pea-size ball that knocks against the metal when shaken.
Of course, these balls can be attached to virtually anything, and you will see them all over Christmas decorations. Historically, these little jingle bells were fastened to horse harnesses for the same reason as other bells. They warned pedestrians and other horse-drawn vehicles that you were approaching. These bells were also used to herald the approach of somebody important.
Single Sleigh Bells
While most sleigh bells come in bunches, there are single sleigh bells out there, and it’s one of many handheld bells. With a single sleigh bell, the bell itself will usually be larger, and you will find it attached to a wooden handle.
A Parsifal bell is actually a stringed musical instrument that was designed to be a substitute for the church bell. They are constructed based on the principles of the grand piano and are rather large. Using heavy, cotton-covered hammers, you strike the strings, which will vibrate and produce sound.
Quarter bells are the bells that sound after each passing quarter on a clock. They are usually traditionally shaped, but kept hidden behind the clock. You could find these at famous clocks, such as Big Ben in London.
Standing bells are also called resting bells because they sit on the ground, and rather than being open at the bottom like a traditional cup-shaped bell, standing bells are open at the top and are basically bowl-shaped. They range in size, from a few centimeters to a meter in diameter. For the standing bell to produce sound, you must strike it with a mallet. You can also produce a sustained sound by rotating a mallet along the outside rim, and this is called a “singing” bowl.
These bells are widely used for making music, meditating, and relaxing, and religion and spirituality are often in the mix. Buddhism makes use of standing bells, and some people even understand these bells as the “Buddha bowl,” “Tibetan bowl,” or “Himalayan bowl.”
Really, the only similarity that these bells have with traditional bells is that they both contain the word “bell.” Smart doorbells are Internet-connected devices that can be paired with your smartphone to alert you of people on your doorstep, even when you are not home. Some smart doorbells even have cameras built in, so you can see who is visiting you. Other features include built in motion sensors, speakers, and microphones so you can even communicate with guests via the doorbell.
Different Purposes of Bell
Bells have historical ties to Catholic, Christian, Anglican, and Lutheran churches, among others, and are rung at specific times of the day (usually 6:00 am, 12:00 pm, and 6:00 pm). The purpose of this was to remind churchgoers and believers to say a prayer or, more specifically, the Lord’s prayer. For many, this was a celebration and an acknowledgment. However, the early morning church bell ring is, in many ways, an invitation to church. Other religious purposes of bell ringing include marriage ceremonies, birth, and death. Historically, bells were used to ward off evil spirits, but some people still practice this.
Giving You a Heads up
Bells have always been used to get people’s attention and to let them know that there is something to pay attention to. This is why they were commonly installed in vehicles such as horse-drawn carriages, early cars, and bicycles, among other things. They give the people around you, especially those that can’t see you, a heads up that you are heading in their direction.
Bells have always been a notification of sorts. They let you know when somebody is at your door, when somebody is calling you on the phone, and when it’s time to do something important such as wake up in the morning.
Signaling a Change
Bells have been used in schools for decades, and they are used to signal a class change or, more importantly, the end of school for the day. Not only does this mean a change of direction for people, but it also signals a change of time. Bells have always been tuned in with clocks to strike at certain times, and an example would be the Big Ben clock tower in London.
Bells have been used in music for quite some time as well. You will find all kinds of different bells across all different cultures. Some musical bells are more common, such as the cowbell, but others are a little more obscure, such as the agogô.
Some bells are strictly for decoration and typically aren’t meant to be played. Some of them can’t be played because of the very materials that they are made out of. Many of the practical applications for which bells were used have been replaced by better technology, so even old, antique bells can make excellent decorations and may even still function.
Bell metal is a hard alloy that is used specifically for making bells and other instruments. This is primarily because bells take quite a beating, so it’s important that the materials used are durable enough to withstand the constant banging. Usually, bell metal is a combination of bronze, tin, and copper. Often, it will have a high tin content, as tin increases rigidity and resonance. Alone, none of these metals would make great options for a bell, but alloying creates a much stronger material.
While bells that are being hit hard and regularly need a strong metal, other bells don’t necessarily require bell-making effort. Smaller bells might be made out of steel, brass, copper, bronze, and other miscellaneous metals, but cheap bells are, of course, going to be made with cheap materials. The materials affect not only durability, but sound quality, so if that’s important to you, you may want to choose a more expensive bell.
Bells that are meant to be played need to be carefully constructed, but other bells don’t require as much effort. Some bells are strictly for decoration and these may be made out of glass, horn, wood, or clay, among other things.
Some bells have actually been made out of wood in the past, although this certainly isn’t common. Actually, wood is mostly reserved for the handles on handheld bells, such as the single sleigh bell. Also, wood will be used for mallets and sticks to hit the bells if they lack a clapper on the inside.
No bells have ever been made out of leather, however, their handles might have been. Leather handles might be found on handheld bells such as the cowbell, but it’s certainly not a requirement. Leather might also mean that your bell is loose, so if you need excellent sound control, you may want to choose a handle that is more fixed.
Great Bell of Dhammazedi
The Great Bell of Dhammazedi was the largest bell ever made and it was constructed all the way back in 1484. The story is that it was lost in a river in Burma when the Portuguese somehow removed it from its temple. It was said to have weighed around 330 tons.
The Tsar Bell
The Tsar Bell is the largest bell that still exists and it weighs around 180 tons. Unfortunately, this bell is merely on display in Russia, as it was cracked during a major fire in 1737. Oddly enough, both of its predecessors were lost completely in fires.
Big Ben Clock Tower
Big Ben is not only extremely famous, but the bells that sit within the tower are some of the largest in the UK. Others large bells include the bells at St Paul’s Cathedral (Great Paul) and the bells at an Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool (Great George).
The Liberty Bell
As far as American history is concerned, the Liberty Bell is by far the most famous. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this bell was a symbol of America’s independence in 1776. It currently sits in the Liberty Bell Center in Independence National Historical Park, and many people remember it by the distinct crack in its side.
This is one of the most popular bells in England. It weighs about 6 tons and is situated in the Tom Tower of Christ Church in Oxford. This bell was made in 1680 and is said to ring 105 times every night, signifying the original scholars of the college.
World Peace Bell
Until 2006, this was the largest swinging bell in the world. It features inscriptions commemorating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The bell currently resides in Newport Kentucky.
Bell of King Seongdeok
This is the largest extant bell in the world. It sits in South Korea and weighs 25 tons. It was originally cast in 771 CE. While it was originally housed in a temple, it currently sits in the National Museum Gyeongju.