Value of Bells: Public Sound Art

I have already touched on the third value of bells for us today—as public sound art. The sounds of tower bells are the aural equivalent to the visual arts on display in public. As public visual arts provide an aesthetic experience for the entire community, so the same goes for the sounds, and in particular the music, of bells. The shared aesthetic experience can serve as a touchstone for the community.

The sounds of bells can define the communal boundaries, just like streets or other landmarks serve as visual, physical boundaries for a neighborhood. Chicago itself has a wonderful example of this—it is said that if you can hear the bells of St. Michael, then you are in the neighborhood of Old Town. The bells figure prominently in the community’s conception of itself.

There is a pronounced drawback with bell ringing regularly floating out over a community. That is, some listeners won’t appreciate them and will rally to stop them. Of course, the same fate can happen to public art perceived as an eyesore. That is the trick with tower bells today, especially with the waning influence of churches—negotiating the use of bells so as to fit within the community.

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