Are bell ringers musicians?

July 2015

I quite enjoy photography. Whether I’m any good at it is debatable but I often say to people that photography is as close as I can get to doing anything artistic. The debate about whether photography even qualifies as art started when a Frenchman by the name of Daguerre came up with a workable method of developing photographic plates. It has been rumbling on ever since, and it seems to be a delicate subject for parts of the art establishment.

I think that even I have a photo or two that would give Tracy Emin’s bed a run for its money; or that pile of bricks that used to be in the Tate Modern. But in my opinion ‘Yes, but is it art?’ is a classic case of asking the wrong question, and the appropriate answer might be, as Rhett Butler said to Scarlett O’Hara in the film, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’.

I have also said to people that bell ringing is a close as I personally can get to playing a musical instrument, and have on a number of occasions wondered whether ringing church bells constitutes doing anything genuinely musical. I have been asked a few times by non-ringers about the ‘tunes’ we play, and whether we work from a musical score. I am told that a ringing method is actually an algorithm. I couldn’t precisely define an algorithm but it impresses the hell out of me so I’m happy to pass that nugget of information on to my non-ringing friends.

But a bell is surely a musical instrument, one of the most ancient ones we have, so are we making music when we ring them? Hearing some of our efforts at Plain Bob you might be tempted to say ‘not necessarily’! I like to think of it slightly differently though. Somewhere, though I forget where, I came across the concept of a set of church bells as a huge, crude, but at the same time rather subtle, musical instrument, like a giant mechanical musical box. But I suppose a musical box isn’t really an instrument, just a mechanical device. You don’t play it, though a child might play with it. The difference between a musical box and what we do is the human input. In fact I do think of a ringing tower as a single musical instrument, rather than just a collection of individual bells, but it is one that is only complete when we are involved.

When we ring I like to think of us as parts of the mechanism, little components in a huge musical machine. And what an instrument it is! Not only is it vast, and generally very old, it’s also impressively loud. How many acoustic instruments can you think of that can be heard from the next parish? I think many rock bands would be pleased to be able to produce that level of volume without electricity and without the police getting involved. And done right, the end result is music, at least to my ears. Hearing a visiting band doing some very respectable minor ringing on our Scarning bells (I can hear the bells perfectly from our house) was sufficiently pleasurable to make me stop what I was doing and simply sit and listen. Is photography art? Are bell ringers musicians? Frankly, my dear…