[Bell Historians] Proto-NBR and musical scales

Carl S Zimmerman csz_stl at RgQGLySKCPLb5uoboMBjyzLr5qQU46xOlP_tfISBPiUUaW_-O_fRy3wGJf02-KynGPotBwcvRwc8W_mj.yahoo.invalid
Sat Dec 2 03:45:30 GMT 2006

As a life-long musician, I am entirely sympathetic with the 
viewpoints expressed by Michael Wilby and Sam Austin.  However, as an 
information specialist my considered opinion is that the present 
system of nomenclature is in fact the correct one to use in the 
proto-National Bell Register, in spite of its apparent awkwardness 
from some musical points of view.  Here is my rationale:

When Dove's Guide Online displays information about a tower in "Hide 
Details" mode, it is functioning just as the printed "Bellringer's 
Guide" always did - as a resource primarily for change ringers, whose 
main interest is in the characteristics of the ring of bells as a 
whole.  In the absence of indication to the contrary, it is assumed 
that the musical note given for the tenor bell is the tonic note of a 
major (diatonic) scale, and that the actual notes of the rest of the 
bells are reasonable approximations to the proper notes of that scale 
as it proceeds upwards.  From this perspective, the actual names of 
the notes of the rest of the bells are essentially irrelevant, and 
any ringer who is without musical training might well be unable to 
state what those ought to be in relationship to the tenor bell.  But 
that won't hamper his/her ability to ring them.

When Dove's Guide Online displays information about a tower in "Show 
Details" mode, it is functioning as the prototype of a future 
National Bell Register.  As such, the relative position of a 
particular bell among others in the tower where it hangs is only one 
of at least eight distinct characteristics which may be recorded. 
Indeed, it could be argued that for NBR purposes, that relative 
position in the tower is the least important of the 
presently-recorded characteristics.  Of much greater potential 
importance are the relationships that might be discovered through 
comparing the characteristics of a particular bell with those other 
bells of similar size, or similar weight, or from the same founder, 
etc. &c.  In order to support such comparisons, it is necessary that 
each characteristic be recorded in a consistent manner.  Evidently, 
the convention adopted for recording notes of bells is that those 
which correspond to the white notes of a piano keyboard shall be 
recorded "as is", while those which correspond to the black notes 
shall be recorded as the sharp of the next lower white note, rather 
than as the flat of the next higher white note.  This convention is 
clear and unambiguous.  (It would have worked almost as well to use 
flats uniformly instead of sharps; but the number sign [#] is closer 
to a sharp sign than any other common character is to a flat sign.)

But let's suppose, just for the sake of argument, that a decision was 
taken to follow musically consistent notation when recording the 
notes of a ring of bells.  What would be the consequences?  Firstly, 
seven notes of the chromatic scale would have unambiguous names, 
while five would have ambiguous names.  (It could be worse; but this 
is the simple approach.)  So it would be necessary to adopt rules for 
disambiguating those names in the various contexts where they might 
occur.  (From a computer's viewpoint, it's not a problem - just 
number the notes of the chromatic octave from 1 to 12, and convert 
the number to the appropriate note name at the point of display. 
Extra programming would be needed to apply the rules, but there is no 
technical obstacle to doing that.)

The first two rules are fairly obvious - assign a note name to the 
tenor to minimize the number of sharps or flats in the resulting key 
signature; then assign names to the rest of the notes in the ring 
according to the chosen key signature.  The 12 possible notes would 
fit keys like this:
   C = no sharps or flats
   G=#, D=##, A=###, E=####, B=#####, F#=######
   F=b, Bb=bb, Eb=bbb, Ab=bbbb, Db=bbbbb. Gb=bbbbbb
making a third rule necessary to arbitrate between Gb and F#.  (Is it 
only a coincidence that this last note also forms the tritone with C? 
That's the Devil's interval!)  These three rules would certainly 
satisfy the concerns which Michael and Sam have expressed about 
naming notes in the context of the ring in which they occur.

However, those three rules would do nothing at all to disambiguate 
note names in the context of comparison of bells from different 
rings.  Some other rule(s) would be needed for that purpose, and I'm 
not going to try to propose such.

Back to key signatures - of what use are they to ringers?  Only to 
help explain to non-ringing musicians a very small bit of what 
ringing is all about - otherwise, no use at all.  Contrary to 
Michael's assertion, bells hung for change ringing are NOT musical 
instruments in the ordinary sense of the term.  They cannot be used 
to play music written for other instruments, and the music of change 
ringing is of almost no interest to musicians who play other 
instruments and are not ringers.  Can you imagine playing 5040 
changes on 8 keys of a piano, for example?  Indeed, some ringers take 
pride in the fact that the music which they make is incomprehensible 
to non-ringing players of ordinary musical instruments.  So the key 
signature that happens to fit the pitches of a particular ring of 
bells is irrelevant to how they are actually rung.

Bells and ordinary musical instruments have this in common: they 
often produce sequences of sounds from a major scale, and our ears 
are comfortable with that in either context.  However, there's no 
theoretical reason why ringing on 8 bells of a 10-bell ring has to 
use the heaviest 8 of the 10; we could pick any 8 of the 10 at random 
and apply exactly the same ringing techniques.  Of course, our ears 
would complain that We've Never Done It That Way Before!  Nor am I 
advocating that; but one does occasionally see such odd performances 
mentioned in the RW, for various reasons, and this serves to 
reinforce the understanding that key signature is unimportant in 

Finally, there can be a problem with note names when it comes to 
tuning.  As has been well documented elsewhere, there are numerous 
different tuning schemes, and in some of them D# is not the same as 
Eb.  Fortunately, the proto-NBR has neatly avoided the pitfalls of 
this area by recording nominal frequency separately from note name. 
Thus it becomes quite clear that the note name is only a convenient 
approximation to the actual pitch of a bell.  The arbitrary use of 
sharps for naming all "black" notes serves to reinforce this concept 
of approximation.

The point that I am long-windedly trying to make may become clearer 
when the proto-NBR (currently based on Dove Online) becomes a real 
National Bell Register, containing not only rings but also clock 
bells and single bells of all kinds.  In that environment, note name 
based on the major scale defined by the tenor bell is largely 
irrelevant; of somewhat more importance would the musical interval 
between the tenor and the bell in question (e.g., unison, fifth, 
octave, tenth).  Therefore, as a ringer and a musician and an 
information specialist, I am quite happy with the terminology 
presently in use by the proto-NBR.


P.S.  If you think that the choice of sharp or flat for note names is 
confusing, just try to understand the viewpoint of the non-ringer to 
whom bell numbers are being "explained".  The relationship of the 
number of a bell to its position in the major scale (which itself is 
based entirely on the tenor bell) changes not only with how many 
bells accompany the tenor in the tower but also with how many bells 
are being rung at the moment!  Whuf!  Oh, and the meanings of "up" 
and "down" the scale for a musician are opposite to what they are for 
a ringer.  Now that's confusing, innit?


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