Change Ringing

August 06 2016

Well, what do you know? I've won the Listserve. Having been a subscriber since May, 2012, and assuming about 23000 members, I calculate that I had about a 6.5% chance of winning after that amount of time. So I count myself lucky!

I consider myself a minor math geek. One of the ways I express that is with participating in an old English pastime called Change Ringing. If you have spent time in England, or the East Coast of the United States, you may have heard church bells ringing. Normally there are 8 bells, sometimes more, rarely fewer. They will ring in “rounds”, from highest note (smallest bell) to the lowest. They may then start permuting their order, following a simple rule:

1) From one change to the next, a bell may move its ringing position one place forward, or one place back, or stay in the same position.

That means that, if I am ringing the bell in the 4 position in one change, then for the next change I can either ring in the 3 position, or stay in the 4 position, or move to the 5 position. Of course, I must also coordinate with all the other ringers, or else things just turn into a hash!

The way this is normally shown on paper is to put a bell number (say, 1 through 8) into a position number (the same count as the number of bells). We always start in “rounds”, which is


Bell 1 is in position 1, bell 2 is in position 2, etc. Bell 8 is in position 8. If we now just switch each pair of bells, we will ring


Bell 1 is now in position 2, bell 2 is in position 1, and bell 8 is in position 7. And no bell is more than 1 position away from its prior position, satisfying the rule. If we again just switch each pair of bells, we return to rounds, and that’s not very interesting. But if we do something slightly different, and leave the bells in positions 1 and 8 alone (these are bells 2 and 7 currently), and switch every other pair, starting at position 2, we get something new:


Bell 2 is still in position 1, bell 4 is in position 2, etc. Again, no bell is more than 1 position away from its prior position.

The goal is to ring a number of changes, starting in rounds and ending in rounds, and never repeat a change. As you can imagine, this can take some thought the first time you start thinking about it.

The group I ring with is not in a church tower, because the closest tower with bells is about 1000 miles away! Instead, we use handbells, with a bell in each hand. So, since we are each controlling 2 bells, we only need 4 people to ring with 8 bells. And with 8 bells, you can ring for a very long time, if you choose the right set of changes.

One of the best parts about change ringing, versus other bell choirs, is that we can ring with any number of people. We don’t worry about someone missing rehearsal. We can still ring, albeit with fewer bells to ring.

If you are in the San Diego area and would be interested in exploring change ringing, or if you have experience with change ringing, please search for Encinitas Handbell Change Ringers where you will find our blog, which includes contact information. Or just reply to this email. I would be happy to chat!

Randy Zack
[email protected]
Encinitas, CA, USA

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