How Bells Ring

The voice of bells

The voice of bells has regulated human life for centuries and, during these centuries, an actual coded language developed that, in times when the bell tower was the single means of mass communications, served to inform the community of special events.

Different places, different sounds

Each area of Italy developed its own particular code and, thus, a special way of ringing its bells. Bell ringers were (and in some areas, still are) important persons in the community, repositories and active interpreters of the language conventions necessary for communication.

Due modi di suonare le campane

I modi di suonare le campane, comunque, si possono raggruppare in due categorie: suoni in oscillazione e suoni a carillons.

Flying striker system

Swinging peals are what we all see when we close our eyes and imagine a ringing bell: the bell moves and the internal striker hits the walls. But the speed with which the bells move determines their power and the musical results of a concert of bells.

In the so-called, ”running” or flying striker system (traditional in the center-south of Italy), the striker is launched at speed sufficient to strike the bell at its highest point in the swing, with the right impact force (the bells normally swing to a maximum of 180°); in this case, the swinging is very fast and, thus, produces rapid sequences of peals, alternating in the two impact points of the striker.

Concerts can be configured that peal on “semi-running”, always in relation to the speed of the swing. There are at least three different methods for semi-running pealing, each one more complex than the other.

The Bolognese system requires bell ringers with very quick reflexes and a sense of rhythm. In fact, in “high pulling”, the four bells are brought to their “cup” position (mouth pointing upwards) with synchronized peals that slow down as a function of the level reached while the “descent” is equally synchronized until the sound stops. In the case of concerts with very large bells, bell ringers are assisted by the “kicker”, who climbs to the level of the hinge and hanging with both hands from a cable above him, speeds up the bell by hitting the upper part of the block with his feet.

The Lucchese system is very similar to the Bolognese, while the festive sound of the Umbrian system is achieved by having only one bell (the largest) reach the cup position, while the others are rung as a carillon. For this ringing system, concerts of three, four, five and even more bells are used.

In the Lombard area, they use the so-called Ambrosian system of “balanced” bells, in which the bells are initially brought to the cup position with being synchronized and only when the bronzes are in the cup position does the concert begin, consisting of musical phrases determined by the timing and sequencing of the “falls”. In Milanese style ringing, the celebration concerts are obtained by interweaving notes and carefully avoiding two bells striking at the same time. On the other hand, in Bergamo style ringing, the bell ringers ability lies in achieving a “snap”, which is the simultaneous striking of an ascending bell and a bell that, in the concert’s music sequence, finds it self descending.

All the ringing systems mentioned above, serve to produce calls or announcement for the faithful, at least in the most recurrent situations. So, the bells can ring in concert, lively, dead and solemn; they also ring the “Angelus” at noon and the “Ave Maria” in the evening; this is probably a tradition of German origin (it was practiced in Moravia as early as 1413), which Pope Callistus generalized in 1456, also ordering that the ringing of the Angelus be followed by the recitation of three Hail Marys. Callistus III meant, in this way, to invoke the intercession of the Virgin in favor of Christianity, at that time engaged in a harsh struggle against the Ottomans who were poised to occupy all of Europe.

Carillons performed

Another way of ringing bells is as carillons performed with large bells. In this method, the bells are stationary and are hit by strikers pulled by ropes or pulling systems connected to so-called keyboards that allow the performance of musical sequences similar to those obtained from the keyboards of almost any musical instrument.

Nevertheless, with the advent of electro-mechanical automation, a satisfying carillon sound can also be achieved by modern electrical devices, also called “electro-strikers”, controlled by electronic or electro-mechanical systems. Sound is produced by striking the stationary bell, with electro-strikers, placed appropriately along the outside edges of the bells; this is how the hours are sounded in the large clocks installed in almost all bell towers, and also all the other Marian, Eucharistic, and Christmas peals that are the jingles that have spread throughout the entire Catholic world.

In Literature and Music

Is playing the sacred bronzes music?

It is certainly sound! Musicality is achieved by ordering sounds by pre-established criteria. 

So, the sacred bronzes are constructed to form an instrumental set corresponding to a “Musical Scale”, and all the rules apply to them that apply to any other musical instrument.
But how are we able to make bells with such refined characteristics? Certainly, in the early history Christian bells, there was no attempt at all at musicality, since there were no bell makers or interpreters with a fine enough ear and bells served as elementary signals addressed to the community. The people of the past were not, however, rough or incompetent; they had simply not posed the problem.

However, as early as the 15th century, they were constructing carillons formed of many small bells, all tuned to a musical scale complete with sharps and flats, so as to be played exactly like a musical instrument, even though more particular, complex and cumbersome. In that period, due to the intuition of Lombard, Emilian and Venetian founders, they began to build concerts of large, turned and elegantly decorated bells, with timbre and harmonics designed to achieve a pleasant, persistent and powerful sound; it was the Lombard, Emilian and Venetian ringers who understood that even large bells, taken in small groups (concerts) could produce results of noteworthy musical quality and there was a great production of codes that, beginning by numbering the bells, developed musical phrases through sequences of numbers (such as:, the sequence of sounds from bell 1a to bell 5a, where 1a is the smallest bell); in Emilian ringing, a strike or blow is the sequence, in ordered progression, of the five bells, where 1a is the “piccola,” 2a is the “mezzanella,” the third is called the “aggiunta,” 4a is called the “mezzana” and the largest is called the “grossa”.

A concert of 4 bells can perform 6 variations:

  • ( Quarto )
  • ( Organo )
  • ( del Din )
  • ( del Don )
  • ( San Pietro )
  • ( Rovescio )

This can be considered the “double” or “extended” Emilian bell ringer’s alphabet and, colloquially, its called the scale or “alla dritta”.

On the other hand, in the Veronese or Venetian system, the first peals are certainly derived from the sequence of musical “falls” of the so-called Ambrosian sound, widely applied in Verona and the Veneto since the end of the Eighteenth century.

All the more complex elaborations are derived from this basic alphabet and, without a shadow of a doubt, lead us directly into a full artistic environment, a fascinating art that requires sensitivity and a musical as well as the physical ability to move and synchronize the bells that often reach total weights of several thousand pounds; so, in addition to tradition and the sacred, there is also the physical activity and concentration necessary to achieve the right musical sequence that has nothing to fear from a comparison with any other more popular sports activity. Often, when ringing concerts composed of many bells, a good outcome requires teams of ringers (sometimes 18 or 20) all working in perfect harmony.

We hope that this tradition will survive and even become territory to be reconquered in a cultural sense, if not in an athletic sense, through the many associations of bell ringers that are keeping this art alive, and not only in Italy.
The solemn or pealing voice of bells has also fascinated many composers who have attempted to reproduce or evoke their sound. In this context, the most famous bell in the history of music is also the smallest. It has to do, in fact, with “La campanella”, final rondo of the Concerto in B-flat (Opus 7) by Niccolò Paganini, which Listz transcribed for the piano. In this version, the virtuoso trill of this crazy little bell became famous.

On the other hand, it is less well known that bells have been celebrated in several lyric operas, beginning with Verdi (Il Trovatore), Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana) and Puccini (Tosca).

Andreas Romberg composed the “Song of the Bell,” a text by Friedrich Von Schiller that has become part of the extensive “literature” dedicated to the bell.
In fact, the “bronzes” have played an equally important role in literature. Passing over quotations that Greek and Latin writers (Euripides, Aristophanes, Phaedrus, Ovid, Martial, etc.) have dedicated to the “tintinnabula”, the ringing of the sacred bronzes has inspired many poets, beginning with Dante. Leopardi, Manzoni, D’Annunzio, Schiller, Garcia Lorca and Eduardo De Filippo have also written about bells, even if the most famous is, no doubt, Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940) in which the tolling bell symbolizes the liberty of Europe threatened by dictatorships. In fact, the novel was inspired by Hemingway’s experience as a war correspondent for an alliance of North American newspapers, on whose account he found himself in Spain during the civil war (1936-39).

Even Carducci, a “non-believer” for most of his life, was moved by the sound of the bell in a small church (San Donato in Polenta, in Romagna) that was ringing the Ave Maria: the song of the bells seemed to bring a blessed quiet to the difficulties of existence, dissolve anguish into tears and restore the voice of prayer to all.

La chiesa di Polenta

Giosuè Carducci


”salve chiesetta del mio canto! A questa
madre vegliarda, o tu, rinnovellata
itala gente da le mole vite,
rendi la voce

de la preghiera: la campana squilli
ammonitrice: il campanil risorto
canti di clivio in clivio a la campagna
Ave Maria.


Un oblio lene de la faticosa
vita, un pensoso sospirar quiete,
una soave volontà di pianto
l’animo invade.

Taccion le fiere e gli uomini e le cose,
roseo il tramonto ne l’azzurro sfuma,
mormoran gli alti vertici ondeggianti
Ave Maria”.


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