The Sound of a Liturgical Bell

There are several considerations here: How to select a bell that is to be rung with others, and then questions of what constitutes a good bell in the first place. For Orthodox churches, there are actually some theological considerations also, and of course the question of how to test a bell— what to look and listen for.

Choose sound, not size or weight

Size and weight are not the main questions. Some foundries actually cast bells that go down the scale as the bells get smaller! This is planned, but unless you know what they're doing, you could order a disaster.

For instance, a zvonnitsa in St. Petersburg already had a full complement of soprano and alto bells, but it needed a real blagovestnik— the main, bass bell that would serve as the foundation of every peal.

They called a reputable foundry and ordered a big bell to be cast on the fast track. It turned out wonderfully, with beautiful icons and inscriptions. But what a disappointment when it was hung and rung with the other bells! It was three times heavier than the next size down, but its strike note was two tones higher! Thus, it has taken its place with the alto bells— and the zvonnitsa still needs a blagovest.

St. Spyridon's Cathedral in Seattle has had a big cast iron bell since the 1930's, rather larger than the Pyatkov No. 7 which they acquired in 1999. The tone of this schoolbell is not altogether "bad", though of course cast iron is no substitute for bronze, and it even harmonizes (roughly) with the other bells, so at least for the time being it is still in use. Yet despite its substantially greater size and weight though, it fits acoustically below the Pyatkov's No. 7, and may not be used as the blagovestnik. Thus the parish rings the Hours on it, and uses No. 6 for the Polyeley.

General Acoustical Principles

An ideal bell would emit three sounds: the base tone (here called prime), followed closely by the first overtone a third higher than the base, and then a hum tone an octave lower.

However, various superfluous sounds (partials) are part of the voice of any traditional bell, and so the strike note that a bell makes might better be described as its "timbre" or "register", than as a "tone". This is true even of bells that have been mechanically tuned, such as European carillon bells.

Especially in Russian bells, the aggregate of main and partial tones gives each bell a distinctive "personality", so that no two bells sound quite alike, even if they were cast in the same mould. European bell makers try as far as possible to eliminate this distinctiveness by eliminating the partials, as far as they can. They do this by turning the bell on a lathe after it's cast, to very precise specifications.

But while European bells— and even the "perfect bell" shown in this picture— are very beautiful and serve a great purpose in carillons (which are like pianos), in this approach, technology replaces the personal voice of art with the impersonal and abstract product of a machine.

Theological Principles

This is an important distinction. The relatively funky and "organic" tuning of Orthodox bells relates to the general vision of Orthodox liturgical art. European bells, and even the "perfect bell"— to say nothing of bells of ordinary iron or brass and even less of electric loudspeakers and acetylene tanks— manufactured without attention to our Holy Tradition, can never quite actualize the event of communion that Orthodoxy is.

Don't buy a dull, voiceless bell that sounds like a tin can when you ring it! Don't let your eagerness to have bell for your church talk you into buying some old scrap iron school bell from a junkyard. The clanking sound you'll be getting with a piece of metal like that— to say nothing of sawed-off acetylene cylinders and old engine blocks— is nothing like the true zvon of a Russian Orthodox bell. To place one of these in your beloved, holy church would be sacrilege!

Even bells from reputable European bell companies lack the specific characteristics of Orthodox liturgical bells— the "personal voice" that's the basis and possibility of Communion.

But to continue in a more practical vein:

Testing the Sound of a Bell

When you encounter an unfamiliar bell, lightly strike its outside wall with a something hard like a coin or a pebble, either in the zone where the clapper strikes, or in the zone responsible for creating the basic tone, which is located in the middle part of the bell. In Russian campanological terminology, this area is called "polya," the "field." T he field should have a lower tone than bell's skirt.

Ideally, in European bells, a minor third should oscillate between the sound produced by the striking hammer. However, Russian tradition allows a major third, a fourth, or a fifth, but the register should not be muddy.

So test the bell with your hammer: Do the sounds register well? Do they have a good relationship?

Strike the outside. Strike and listen. If you don't hear the overtone resonating 4 to 5 seconds after the strike (if the bell "growls" or "whines"), and if you don't then hear the bell humming on its own (after 10 to 12 seconds on a small bell, or less than a minute on a one-and-a-half ton bell), don't buy it. Why not? All bells will eventually crack, because you stress the metal every time you strike them. With proper care, though, you should get at least a few hundred years out of yours. But if a bell has the characteristics just described, it will definitely crack, sooner rather than later. Absence of a sustained resonance is a sign that the metalworker was probably not qualified to do his job. Oxygen was not allowed to escape from the alloy when it was cast, and if you were to break the metal, you'd find that it was shiny and crystalline, with branch-like shapes pointing inward like arrows. You may even find that if you deliver several sharp hammer blows in a place on the bell where you won't damage it (you don't want to make the salesman nervous!)— that is, where the bell's form flares outward, the metal will actually chip. A good bell will only receive a dent.

In a good bell, you should be quite impressed about the relative softness of the bronze alloy. Brittleness is not good!

Now inspect the tongue of the bell visually (see the appearance page to find out what to look for), and then try it striking the bell with it.

You need to know, of course, that the place struck by the clapper on a new bell might have to be broken in. Before it is broken in the bell's true sound will be somewhat distorted. To hasten this process, foundries will usually tap the area with a sledge hammer swung with the same force as the swinging clapper. This should be done at the factory, but if you're getting a brand new bell, you might have to take this somewhat into account.

At any rate, now give the bell a serious ring: With a full, powerful blow you should be able to hear the reverberation of the entire plurality of tones which form the sound, in your ears, as the single base tone. The human ear and brain are organized in such a way that it will sound good if the minor third rings for a long time above the base tone, as if cutting through the spectrum of the loud, primary overtone.

As the reverberation softens, the bell should continue to hum sonorously, evenly and richly for a long time. The authentic, purely Russian timbre of the bell you choose will be immediately apparent.

The sound of a good bell will awaken something deep in you, a kind of genetic and archetypal memory. But it will not have the "precision tuning" of a carillon bell.

Each bell should sing well with the other bells that compose the set, but here, as in everything else in Orthodoxy, personal distinctiveness is as prized as the various colorful characters that make up our human communities.

You'll never forget the bells of your village for as long as you live.

Quality Suited to Liturgy!

We import only from the top award winners at All-Russian bell festivals. Names like Pyatkov and Vera.

Bells that win awards like "Best Sound", "Best Appearance", and "Best All-Around Excellence"– consistently, year after year.

Bells endorsed by the Campanaological Arts Association of Russia, of which we are members.

Our foundries cast hundreds of bells. That means that when they put your set together, they can select bells which specifically sound as good together as they possibly can.