Change Ringing for an American Handbell Director

by Luke Tegtmeier


Part I: (Really) basic theory

Most handbell ringers and directors know that the handbell ringing tradition grew out of tower ringing (change ringing) in England. Yet very few of us actually understand and use that method of ringing. I wanted to teach my bell choir change ringing, but couldn’t find any resources that truly started at the very beginning. This blog tries to fill that gap and point interested readers toward more detailed resources. Change ringing can easily be used as prelude/postlude/filler during worship services. As with cricket, rugby, and other proudly British cultural phenomenons, there is a lot of amusing vocabulary, which I’ll try to minimize here. Those interested in more terminology can visit this online dictionary.

Change ringing is probably best defined by watching or listening to it, as can be found here. A series of 4-12 bells are rung in a series of mathematical permutations. Remember work with 12-tone tone rows in 20th-century music theory class? This is similar in practice, but with diatonic notes. The bells play down the scale of pitches, then each time through thereafter each bell either moves one place sooner or later, or stays the same (“makes place”). The interest, therefore, lies in the way that the “tune” changes as the bell order shifts.

Practical set-up

  • It is probably easiest to start with 6 bells. This way, a 3 octave choir can have 3 circles going from A down to C totaling 9 people.
  • Everyone plays two bells when doing change ringing on handbells.
  • Last note (Tenor) is always the tonic. Thus, if ringing 6 bells in C, the Treble is A, the Tenor is C.
  • Generally handbell change-ringing is done sitting in a circle so that ringers can see each other. Sherry glasses and fireplace are optional.
  • Bells must be able to easily ring equally both up (Handstroke) and down (Backstroke). With my group, I found it was best to buy a small screwdriver for everyone to adjust his/her own tension springs.
  • Ringing always starts with a Handstroke (up).
  • If sitting, the backstroke happens near the knee, while the handstroke is caused by pulling the bell sharply against the thumb, which has been placed a short distance away from the guard. (Imagine squeezing a sponge)
  • There are two sets of numbers used in change-ringing.
    • Bells are numbered, with Treble always being #1 and descending through the scale. In a line, these numbers will move around.
      • Note: this will be very confusing to musicians who sight-sing on numbers and label Tonic “1”. In change ringing, tonic (Tenor bell) is always the biggest number.
    • Positions in a line are also numbered. These stay constant. Thus:

Position Numbers:
1 2 3 4 5 6

Random Bell Line:

3 5 1 6 2 4

Plain Hunt

Plain Hunt is a very simple set of changes for 6 bells. The method for playing “Plain Hunt” is that Places 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6 switch alternatively with Places 2-3 and 4-5. I found it helpful to have my bell choir create their own chart of Plain Hunt to help understand what’s going on. Below is a model. It is very helpful for ringer to draw a red or blue line through each of his or her bells to see the connection.

Position: 1 2 3 4 5 6


1 2 3 4 5 6 “Rounds” - playing a descending scale. Usually played twice through.

X X X Everyone’s bells cross positions (reverse playing order).

2 1 4 3 6 5

| X X | Positions 1 and 6 do not shift - they “make places”

2 4 1 6 3 5

4 2 6 1 5 3

4 6 2 5 1 3

6 4 5 2 3 1

6 5 4 3 2 1 “Back rounds” - playing an ascending scale

5 6 3 4 1 2 All bells cross back into original positions.

5 3 6 1 4 2

3 5 1 6 2 4

3 1 5 2 6 4

1 3 2 5 4 6

1 2 3 4 5 6 Back again! Either stop here or repeat ad nauseum.

Posted on Dec 10, 2012 7:39:06 AM
Filed Under: Instruments and Ensembles, Filed Under: review-prelude,

Luke Tegtmeier

Written by Luke Tegtmeier

Luke Tegtmeier holds Church Music degrees from Valparaiso University and Luther Seminary, and works for Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, MN, where he directs five ensembles. Though a life-long Lutheran, he has strong Anglican tendencies, as may be seen in his musical recommendations.