And if you know a little about musical notation, you'll see that,
the low "D" you perceive when the bell is struck (the strike
note) isn't even part of this spectrum.
Nevertheless, unless you've developed the ability to hear the subtleties,
you hear a "D" anyway, because a bell's sound is produced more in
the ear than in the air, as it were. So let's talk a little about
how a bell makes its sounds.
In all traditions, the age-old art of bell casting, passed down
from father to son and from master to apprentice for centuries,
allows bell makers to cast bells that are remarkably close to a
Above are the profiles of typical German, Russian, and French
bells. You can see that Russian bells tend to have thicker walls,
and thus are heavier than their Western counterparts. But that's
not the only difference between European and Russian bells.
Western bells nowadays are usually tuned after casting to a precise
tone by grinding down their surfaces or by trimming them on a lathe.
In the Russian tradition, however, this tuning would be impermissible,
as it would ruin the bell's "personal" distinctiveness.
Moreover, because Russians consider bells to be rhythm rather than
melody instruments, precise melodic tuning is not so important (or
even desirable) as it would be in bells made for a carillon, for
This is the main difference between Russian and European bells.
European bells are precise, machine-tuned instruments, scientifically
designed to fit into large carillons, which really are grand metallic
pianos. Russian bells are cast for a tone, but not refined after
they come forth from the mould.
We could say that the sound of a Russian bell is to that of a European
bell, as the taste of granola is to that of white bread.
Tuning large ensembles of bells to particular notes permits the
construction of enormous campaniles such as that of the Rockefeller
Carillon in New York or the carillon at the University of California
at Berkeley. This tradition really began on a large scale only in
our century, thanks to the efforts of Dutch and Belgian firms. Using
computer technology, a bell's profile can now be designed so that
its fundamental tone is maximized, and its overtones and humming
are muffled. On every bell certain zones emit particular sounds
in spectrum when the bell is struck. These zones can be sanded down
on the inside wall to correct or alter the resonance of the to alter
the bell's fundamental tone. But this is not done for Russian bells.
Bell towers usually contain 30 to 40, or even more, bells arranged
in several chromatic octaves which allows even the most complex
melodies to be played as if they were a piano scores. Today, clock
towers are being mechanized to automatically chime, as they are
being equipped more and more often with electronic controls. The
sound of a bell used in one of these installations needs to be as
disciplined and correct as a soldier in formation. No note should
"jump out" of the spectrum and result in disharmony. But because
Russian bells are rhythm instruments (drums),
a certain amount of disharmony is tolerable and, indeed, even interesting.
That's the main difference, right there in the fact that
Russian bells are played like drums, and European bells like pianos.
A definite musical phrase flows from the peal of several Russian
bells when they are rung in a particular way: the slowly tolling
boom of the big bell is sprinkled by a quick clangor of the mid-sized
ones, all according to a pattern, which repeats itself even as it
evolves. But the line is not a melody line, except perhaps in a
very rudimentary way.
For the same reasons, smaller tintinnabula are not in much demand
in Europe, and bell companies there hardly ever cast them. Yet you'll
find small (<10 kg) bells playing together with large bells (>30
T) bells in Russia, because the main purpose is not melody. In fact
the sound of European bells is quite powerful since the bell itself
produces the sound as it strikes a freely swinging clapper with
full the momentum of its entire weight-- as opposed to the Russian
method, where the sound is produced by the clapper as it is pulled
against the stationary bell. This manner of striking not only allows
the smaller bells to be heard more readily, but also determines
the unique technique of the Russian zvon.
Thus we stress: Russian bells are rhythm instruments. Zvonars like
the one in the picture to the left do not so much play melodies,
as rhythmic patterns, often syncopated and not altogether unlike
jazz percussion or African 'talking
But as to the tuning of bells, very characteristic of the Orthodox
approach is the fact that it's the distinctive, 'personal' voice
that we value. A bottle-shaped bell has even been invented which
is tuned in a major key whose main overtone sounds with the base
tone in major, not minor, thirds. Another, conical bell has been
invented, whose seven perfectly tuned partial harmonics mimic those
of the human voice. This has been something of a holy grail for
Western bell makers and hence the bell has been called a "perfect
Russian bell makers are concerned with tuning, but this quest for
a "perfect" bell is not of special interest to them. There's
more to the difference between machine tuning and natural tuning
than just granola and wonderbread. We don't use Western pictures
and music in our churches even the very best of Western art
because neither of its characteristic techniques of abstraction
or substitution can actualize the personal event of communion
that Christianity is.
And the same may be said of bells. Sanctified from very day of
their casting to announce traditional liturgical harmonies, each
bell with its ownmost unique, distinctive voice, the whole ensemble
played by hand in a personal manner
Russian bells express the same Logos and are oriented to the same
Dawn as everything else in our sanctuaries, whose voices they in
fact are. Elsewhere on this site we have some further notes on this
theology; and also some technical
articles, mostly from Western sources, relating to the tuning
and acoustics of bells, both Russian and non-Russian. You can also
find actual samples of Russian bell music by clicking here,
and some of the rules for how to do it here.