The Sound of Bells

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Greeenwich, St. Alfege, 10, 23-2-14 in D

Recorded: WAH 21/8/00
Analysed: WAH 13/1/01

These bells are a ten by Mears of 1954, but incorporating a tenor by Mears of 1824. They are a good sounding ten and the old tenor blends very well. Here they are being rung in rounds, recorded from the ringing room. Excellent sound, in my opinion.

Bell Founder Tuning
1 - 9 Mears 1954 None since then
10 Mears 1824 Mears 1954

Tuning of main partials

Tenor nominal: 590.5Hz.

Bell Hum Prime Tierce Quint Nom'l S'quint O'nom.
1 -2398 -1196 -897 -414 1591 660 1204
2 -2399 -1200 -888 -436 1410 677 1206
3 -2402 -1202 -891 -431 1206 684 1223
4 -2400 -1195 -896 -398 1093 691 1238
5 -2400 -1198 -892 - 895 689 1238
6 -2393 -1191 -905 -478 703 706 1260
7 -2399 -1203 -890 -490 507 693 1248
8 -2402 -1188 -885 -491 393 689 1237
9 -2403 -1192 -891 -504 206 698 1253
10 -2282 -1267 -896 -434 0 695 1251

(The figures in this table are all given in cents. For all partials except the nominal, the partials are given from the nominals of the bell. Cents of the nominals are relative to the tenor. Pairs of values indicate a doublet. Frequencies for the quint are often not given, especially if inaudible.)

Intensity plots

Here are the two trebles:

Greenwich, 1 and 2

Here are bells three to nine:

Greenwich, 3 to 9

And here is the tenor:

Greenwich Tenor


As will be clear from the recording, these are a melodious peal of bells. Starting with the nominals, there is no stretch at all across the octave. More interestingly, though, the treble, fourth and eighth (i.e. the thirds and seventh of the scale) are flat compared with the theoretical equal-tempered values. In fact, this peal is tuned in just, not equal, temperament and the softness of this tuning is quite attractive. In a subsequent discussion with Whitechapel they tell me that they routinely tuned in just temperament until the early 1960s.

Setting the tenor aside for a moment, it is clear from the tuning figures and the intensity plots that the other partials in bells 1 to 9 are accurately tuned. Hums, primes and tierces are very accurate across all the bells. The quints show some scatter, tuning of this partial was probably sacrificed to get such good tuning in all the others. Tuning of quints is never very important provided they are quiet, as here. The partials of the tenor of course show some remnants of old-style. The sharp hum and flat prime can be heard when the bell is rung on its own but are not distinguishable in changes.

The intensity plots show that there are several different bell shapes in the peal. The two trebles have very distinctive intensity plots, in which the lower partials are strongest and those above the nominal subdued. Their intensity profiles are similar to, but not as extreme as, the ca. 1400 bell at Great Bookham. I have not seen the Greenwich bells, but am told that they have a somewhat dumpy shape. This intensity profile, together with the fact that (unlike the rest of the peal) both octave nominals are almost perfect octaves, gives these two bells a mellow, soft tone rather different from the harsh sound one sometimes gets in trebles on higher numbers. I find it attractive.

Bells three to nine have a different intensity profile much more typical of a modern shape. I will not go into more detail here, other than to point out that the seventh has the most unusual intensity profile, with lots of strong partials above the nominal. This gives it something of a 'clonk' - compare with the old sixth at Dorking - and makes it the worst bell in the tower. You can hear it standing out in the recording of rounds if you listen carefully.

The tenor is definitely worth a mention. Though its partial tuning is not true-harmonic, as can be heard when it is rung alone, its intensity profile is quite good. The strong nominal, strong prime almost at the octave, and fairly weak hum, speak to good tone, only a little offset by the moderately strong partials above the nominal. Its tierce is tuned exactly in line with the rest of the bells. These factors together make it a good match for the others, and demonstrate how quality of tone can be as or more important than exact tuning.


Last updated May 17, 2001. Site created by Bill Hibbert, Great Bookham, Surrey