Why am I writing a blog on bells? Or, more to the point, why would bells interest those besides bell performers and experts? I’m going to make a bell aficionado out of you, and here’s why:
1) The sounds of bells are one of the few in the Western hemisphere that have continued on from the middle ages to today as signals. Now, many of our modern musical instruments are based on ones from this time period; I’m not arguing that bells as musical instruments are unique in this regard. And there are many natural sounds from ancient times that persist (animals, the wind in the trees, etc.). Cities in the middle ages were noisy places!
But think about sounds from man-made sources from the premodern period that function as signals…how many of them do we still use today? Not many. Early on bells signaled a variety of communications, such as fire or curfew, while these days they signal things like the beginning of a church service. Can you think of any other man-made signals that started over a millennium ago that we still use today? Drums are one example. Let me know any others in the comments!
This unbroken use of bells in community settings in the Western world gives us unparalleled insight into our communities over time. What does the changing use and meaning of bells tell us about the changes in our communities? What, if anything, has endured about the bells over the ages? How can we make bells relevant to our communities for another millennium? Bells have lasted for this long—there must be something special to them worth exploring!
2) As alluded to above, bells can function both as signal and musical instrument, so that the sound of bells can be musical or not, depending on its use. What other musical instruments are functionally employed as signalers? Again, not many. Trumpets and drums come to mind. Any others? This in-between position for bells are what make them so interesting—the same set of bells can be heard as a musical instrument in one context and not in another. How do we determine whether bell sounds are musical or not? Exploring bell sounds gets to the heart of why we hear any sound as musical, or not.
In short, the meaning of the sounds of bells over time tells us something about our history, while the meaning within a particular context tells us something about how we define music. I’ll be coming back to these themes in the future, don’t you worry.