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"Sorry" is one of the words you occasionally hear when bellringing is taking place. But in these circumstances it must be unique in that the word is uttered before the error is heard. The explanation lies in the fact that when you start a bell off to ring its note, there is a delay of over a second before the clapper strikes the bell and therefore before the sound is heard. So imagine you are ringing a bell that should at this moment be ringing in 4th place - if you have accidentally pulled the bell off the balance in 3rd place (already occupied by another bell), there is that pause in which you can slip an apology to your fellow ringers. A tiny moment later there'll be the horrible sound of two bells striking simultaneously, something that (once you have pulled the bell off the balance and sent it on its way) you can do nothing to avoid.

This doesn't happen too often because bellringers are truly trying to ring to the best of their ability. It is live music. You might wonder whether it has to be live when machines and/or electronics are replacing so many activities. If you can have driverless cars, can you have driverless bellringing?

Sort of. In the years up to 1925 a man called John Carter invented a ringing machine which would ring a set of handbells, not with conventional song tunes but with proper bellringing 'methods' of the type that you hear on All Saints Church's bells ("change ringing"). It's an impressive piece of mechanical/electrical machinery that I saw demonstrated once at the Science Museum in London - ingenious because it preceded the era of electronics.

Nowadays computers can be programmed to use their sound-cards to produce highly acceptable change ringing. Any method, no matter how complicated, is within their capability. In theory it would be possible to amplify this sound and broadcast it via speakers in a church spire or tower. It would be perfect striking; no need for the 'sorry' word. But we don't do this because there is something special about live music. Going to a concert is very different from streaming music or playing a CD. Better? Maybe not. More exciting? Definitely. Some years ago the Musicians Union distributed car-window stickers with the slogan "Keep Music Live", which precisely makes my point for me.

Computers such as I have just mentioned can and do play a part in teaching people to ring. Computers can also judge the quality of bellringing. In our tower, we have a facility called "Cirel " (a.k.a. "Cyril") to do just that. Woe betide you if your handstroke leads are always late or if your dodges are lazy because Cirel will downgrade your score. You may happen to know that bellringers compete against each other in what are known as striking competitions. So far those competitions are always judged by expert human ears. But it cannot be long before it’s the computer that announces the order of merit. And then perhaps consumes the judge's tea and cake??

Steve Smith (October 2019) 


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