The History and Use of Semitone Bells
By David Bryant

Semitone bells are mysterious things to many ringers, and on being told that a tower has fourteen ringing bells but that this constitutes a ring of twelve, not fourteen, they often question why this is the case. This aim of this article is to demystify the subject of semitone bells, to explain how they are used and the history of their provision and use.

Part 1: What they are and how they are used

The purpose of a semitone bell (or 'accidental' in musical terminology) is to allow a lighter ring in a true major key to be rung without using the larger bells of a heavy ring. Ringing in a major key is considered desirable because to do otherwise (except in the case of Minor, of which more later) generally sounds unpleasant. In practice, semitone bells are most usually found accompanying rings of twelve, and their purpose is to provide a light eight. In the case of a ring of twelve, there are two possible ways of producing a 'true' (i.e. Major) light eight by using only one semitone bell. The most common is the flat 6th, which is used by ringing bells 2-9 and using the flat 6th in place of the 6th. The other way is to use a sharp 2nd, ringing the front eight with the sharp 2nd in place of the 2nd. Although not as popular as a flat 6th, there are nevertheless a number of twelve bell towers which also have a sharp 2nd. In the case of either of the above-mentioned semitone bells, it is usual for the rope of the semitone and the bell it replaces in the light eight to fall very close together, and for the one not being used to be tied back out of the way; many towers also have a different coloured sally on the semitone bell to identify it.

Having explained the presence and purpose of a thirteenth bell, we will now move on the the fourteenth which accompanies a number of rings of twelve with a flat 6th. This fourteenth bell is an extra treble, and its purpose is to provide a 'light' ring of ten, without using the three largest bells of the ring of twelve. It is usually numbered '0', and by ringing 0-5, 6b, 7-9 the light ten is produced. It should be noted that the extra treble actually produces a true ring of thirteen, but as this number of bells is neither particularly musical nor well suited to change ringing it is unusual for it to be used in this manner, and in every case where an extra treble exists it has been installed to be used in conjunction with a flat 6th. In a number of cases, such as York Minster, the extra treble's rope falls so close to the tenor that ringing all thirteen would be difficult; at Mancroft, Norwich, the extra treble falls between the 11th and tenor, which has the advantage of producing a better rope circle for the light ten. Although, for the reason explained above, an extra treble is not technically a semitone bell, it is usually considered as such and it is unusual for a ring with one to be described as a ring of thirteen.

It is also worth mentioning here that another use of a flat 6th, other than to provide a light eight, is to provide a ring of ten in a Melodic Minor key, by ringing bells 2-11, using the flat 6th in place of the 6th. This sounds particularly mournful, and is especially appropriate when ringing half muffled. If an extra treble is also present, a Melodic Minor twelve can be produced by ringing all except the 6th and tenor, and in the case of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, the flat 6th and extra treble were installed for this purpose, rather than for the more usual purpose of providing a light ten.

It is usual for a tower with one or more semitone bells to have either a flat 6th (plus possibly an extra treble) or a sharp 2nd. At Buckfast both a sharp 2nd and a flat 6th exist, and at Hull there are all three, and although this adds variety most towers consider that there is little purpose in having both a sharp 2nd and a flat 6th, and indeed the sharp 2nd was removed and sold from St Chad's, Shrewsbury, recently and a flat 6th and extra treble installed in its stead.

Before looking at semitones accompanying numbers of bells other then twelve, brief mention will be made of the one twelve-bell tower which has semitone bells other than those described above. This tower is Worcester Cathedral, which has a sharp 5th and a sharp 9th, in addition to a flat 6th. The semitone bells at Worcester were installed primarily for use by the tune player which operates on the bells, but they are hung for ringing and have certain specific uses within the ring. The flat 6th can be used to provide the traditional light eight or Melodic Minor ten, but if used in conjunction with the sharp 5th can produce a Harmonic Minor ten, composed of bells 2-11, using the sharp 5th in place of the 5th and the flat 6th in place of the 6th. This ring has a beautiful ethereal, haunting quality, and is traditionally rung half-muffled before midnight on New Year's Eve. The sharp 5th can also be used in conjunction with the sharp 9th to produce an alternative eight in a Major key (C# in this case), by ringing bells 4-11, using the sharp 5th and sharp 9th in place of the 5th and 9th respectively. It is worth noting that although the rope of the flat 6th falls in the correct place in the circle, those of the other two semitone bells do not, and so when they are used the ropesight is rendered rather difficult.

To conclude this section of the article, we will look at semitone bells in conjunction with rings of bells other than twelve. The lowest number of bells to be accompanied by a semitone bell is eight, and in such a case the semitone bell is always a sharp 5th, which is used to produce a light six composed of bells 2-7 with the sharp 5th substituted for the 5th. There are very places where such an arrangement exists, but an example of Great Malvern Priory in Worcestershire. Where rings of ten are concerned there are likewise few examples; in two cases (Bexhill on Sea and Llanbadarn Fawr) a sharp 7th exists, giving a true six comprising bells 4-9 with the sharp 7th in place of the 7th, and at Londonderry Cathedral a sharp 3rd and a sharp 7th produce a light eight with the 9th as tenor.

On rings of more than twelve, semitones are usually equivalent to those used with rings of twelve; for instance, Winchester Cathedral has a ring of fourteen plus a sharp 4th and a flat 8th. These are the equivalent of a sharp 2nd and flat 6th in twelve, and provide alternative light tens - composed of the front ten in thee case of the former, and bells 2-11 in the case of the latter, with the semitone bell substituted for the 4th and 8th respectively. Of the three rings of sixteen, Birmingham has no semitone bells; it is worth noting that a light ring of eight, composed of bells 2-9, exists within a ring of sixteen in any case. At Perth the semitone bells are a flat 3rd and a flat 10thm which are used by to produce a light twelve by ringing bells 2-13, with the semitone bells substituted for the 3rd and 10th respectively. At Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin there is the most numerous installation of ringing bells in the world, nineteen in total comprising a ring of sixteen plus sharp 6th, sharp 9th and sharp 13th semitone bells, which are used to produce a light twelve comprising bells 4-15 with the three semitone bells substituted for the 6th, 9th and 13th respectively.

Part 2: History

The second part of this article will look at the history of semitone bells. Firstly, there is the obvious question of when they first appeared. The few semitone bells in rings of less that twelve are all historical survivals, and need not concern us here. Therefore, we will concentrate on those accompanying rings of twelve or more bells. The oldest such semitone bell still existing in a ring is the flat 8th at Winchester, cast by Anthony Bond in 1621. However, this has only been at the Cathedral since 196?, having been obtained second-hand from St Laurence, Winchester, where it was the 4th of an unringable five. The next oldest candidate, the flat 6th at Exeter Cathedral, was cast in 1630 by Thomas Pennington, but this again was not intended as a semitone bell, being cast as the 2nd of an eight in the medieval Mixolydian Mode. When a new bell was cast in 1676 to convert the ring into a major key, it was for some reason retained, and survived down through the centuries to eventually become the flat 6th of the present ring of twelve, although the augmentation fro ten didn't take place until 1922.

So where was the first specifically-cast semitone bell? The answer is that it was cast as part of a new ring for Leeds Parish Church in 18??. The semitone bell in this case was a sharp 2nd, and according to its inscription (reproduced on the flat 6th which replaced it when all the bells were recast by Taylor's ion 1932), the ring was cast to the design of a local ringer, a Mr Gawkroger, who was evidently musically aware. It should not be assumed that prior to this the back eight of twelves were necessarily rung if this number of bells was desired; there are records of a number of peals on the straight front eight at St Bride's, London, and at many other places. The front eight of a twelve form an octave in the Mixolydian Mode, and although this is by no means the worst-sounding of the medieval modes, it sounds unnatural to modern ears accustomed to the Major and Minor which are almost ubiquitous in contemporary western music.

The next specifically cast semitone bell was a flat 6th for Halifax parish church, supplied in 1857 by C and G Mears of Whitechapel, along with two trebles to augment the ring to twelve.

Thereafter, semitone bells appeared sporadically, becoming popular in the twentieth century probably as a result of an increased musical awareness throughout society. Nowadays, many twelve-bell towers have semitone bells, and where they don' t exist this is usually either because the bells are too light to justify having one, because there is a strong band which doesn't need one, or because the bells have had no major work done on them for many decades. In the latter case, a semitone will often be added when a restoration takes place.

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has done what it set out to do, and demystified the semitone bell. As explained above, semitone bells have become increasingly popular in conjunction with heavy rings of twelve; whether or not they are a good thing is a matter of personal choice. Certainly, they eliminate the need to ring unmusical combinations in order to avoid using the heaviest bells of a ring, but some suggest that they make ringers lazy and that if a light ten is available they won't bother to ring the back bells. Whether or not this is the case will of course depend on the ringers in question, but from having for several years been a member of a band which habitually rang on the front eight of a twelve I personally am very much in favour of them.