The Sound of Bells

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Newcastle upon Tyne, Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, 13, 37-2-17 cwt in D flat

Recorded: WAH 11/2/01
Analysed: WAH 9/4/01

The heart of this peal is a Taylor ten of 1892, not tuned since. These bells, like the near identical ten at Imperial College, are a significant staging point on Taylors' journey to true-harmonic tuning. Listen to the twelve being rung in rounds, and then remember that most of them were cast and tuned 3 years before Simpson's first paper was published. The difference from Dunham Massey of 1854 is dramatic, and there is an interesting comparison to be had with St Paul's Cathedral of 1878.

As well as the original ten hung on one level, the frame extended frame at Newcastle also houses three mediaeval bells, two extra trebles and a flat 6th of 1914, and an extra treble of 2000. In the top tier is Major, the bourdon, which is owned not by the Cathedral but the City. As David Hird describes them 'it's like someone took a handful of bells and threw them into the tower anyhow'. The range of Taylor bells in the tower with dates over the last century provides further interesting comparisons.

Bell Founder Tuning
0 Taylor 2000 -
1, 2 Taylor 1914 none since
3 Taylor 1892 none since
4 Taylor recast 1928 none since
5, 6 Taylor 1892 none since
flat 6th Taylor 1914 none since
7 - 12 Taylor 1892 none since

Tuning of main partials

Tenor nominal: 545.5 Hz
I have added the date of each bell to the table below to show directly the relation between date and tuning style.

Bell Hum Prime Tierce Quint Nom'l S'quint O'nom. Date
0 -2404 -1227 -905 -451 2113 668 1194 2000
1 -2415 -1211 -892 - 1915 650 - 1914
2 -2393 -1204 -882 -440 1704 660 1175 1914
3 -2314 -1501 -909 -406 1612 676 1211 1892
4 -2415 -1215 -903 -487 1408 685 1229 1928
5 -2351 -1445 -921 -523 1187 678 1225 1892
6 -2285 -1458 -910 - 1089 680 1232 1892
6f -2396 -1203 -886 - 992 672 1211 1914
7 -2295 -1290 -889 - 902 676 1221 1892
8 -2304 -1302 -877 -496 696 669 1214 1892
9 -2330 -1261 -876 -500 490 686 1235 1892
10 -2346 -1223 -875 - 402 684 1229 1892
11 -2311 -1235 -869 - 188 677 1226 1892
12 -2294 -1240 -865 - 0 673 1215 1892

(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

All these plots are from recordings of the bells rung 'up', apart from that of the tenor.

Newcastle treble

Newcastle third

Newcastle eighth

Newcastle tenor

Commentary

First, the nominals. Although the trebles are a bit sharp, this is not a very stretched peal. The treble to the original ten (the present third) is only 12 cents sharp, and the fifth is actually 13 cents flat of the octave. This is in complete contrast to St Paul's (74 cents stretch across 12 bells) and Tewkesbury (39 cents across the 12). In general, the tuning of the nominals is not very accurate, though this is not too noticeable in the tower due to the general good tone of the bells. The following plot shows differences in nominal tuning from equal temperament:

Newcastle nominals

The next partials of interest are the primes. One should start with the old (back) ten, i.e. bells 3 to 12 omitting the flat 6th and the recast 4th. The back bells have primes which are pretty near the octave (compare the grossly sharp primes of Dunham and the slightly flatter primes of St. Paul's). As the bells get smaller, the primes get flatter, as one would expect, and the prime of the old treble is really quite flat. The progression of primes from back to front shows a clear degree of control over this partial, more so than at St Paul's. The primes of the new bells stand out against this progression with their near-octave tuning. One might criticise Taylors for making no accomodation to the tuning of the existing bells, but in fact the tonal quality of the newer trebles improves the overall effect of the ring. The prime of the extra treble is somewhat flat for a bell of today.

The hums of the 1892 bells are sufficiently near the double octave as to create the effect of 'octave' hums which gives a mellowness to the bells. Again, these partials are clearly quite well under control, despite Simpson in his second paper four years later giving a fairly incorrect explanation as to how to tune this partial. The superquints and octave nominals of all the bells, old and new, are flatter than found in typical modern bells. The near-octave octave-nominals contribute to the mellow sound of the bells. This partial in the trebles is slightly flatter than in the tenors but not so much as would, alone, indicate major differences in profile. Turning last to the tierces, these again show a reasonable degree of control across all the bells, suggesting that they were tuned even in the 1892 bells. The tierces in the back bells are noticeably sharper than in the trebles.

The intensity plots for these bells show quite a wide variation. One common characteristic, however, is that many of the bells have a stronger tierce than is usually seen. The treble and second, both of 1914, have a modern 'little bell' profile with low intensity high partials and a strong hum - though not as pronounced as both Taylors and Whitechapel would produce in later years. Bells like these rely on strict octave tuning of hum and prime for their pitch. The plot of the third is given as it was the treble of the old ten, it has a typical '19th century' intensity profile but with not too much in the higher partials.

The intensity profile for the eighth is quite different again. Fifth, flat 6th, 7th and 8th all have similar profiles with very strong primes and weaker nominals and hums. Remarkably, this does not seem to affect the perceived pitch of these bells, even though the primes are flat. I suspect the weak nominal is actually due to clapper damping - these bells were recorded 'up'.

Last but not least, I have shown the profile of the tenor, which was chimed for the recording. This shows a relatively weak prime and hum, good strong nominal, strongish tierce which seems to be a characteristic of these bells, and some higher partials which however are more closely in tune than in modern bells. Compare this profile with the tenors at, say, Dorking and Tewkesbury. Not at all a bad bell.

Endnote

To me this peal of bells is exceptionally interesting for the reasons stated at the start. I suspect, without proof, that much of the good control of the partials in Taylor bells of this date arose from experiments in profile, i.e. physical bell shape, based on knowledge gained from studying the best continental bells. The partials in these bells are not as well tuned as in modern bells, but compared with Taylor's work of 40 years before, it is clear that many of the practical aspects of true-harmonic tuning, and as importantly, modern bell profiles were known well before Canon Simpson came to call in Loughborough.


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Last updated August 14, 2001. Site created by Bill Hibbert, Great Bookham, Surrey