Saved by the Bell

Bells regulated daily life in European monasteries, then European churches, cities, and universities. New World colleges were fashioned after those of the Old World, and so bells found a home on our campuses. I love this depiction below of the college bell in the lives of Yale students in the nineteenth century.

Under the elms five minutes before the clanging of the remorseless old sentinel in Lyceum belfry! What a fluttering and sometimes cutting of leaves! What a racing through the whole lesson to catch some cue which will enable colloquy men to save an inglorious fizzle, and philosophicals to make a triumphant rush. What varied expressions of countenance! Here smiling complacency, there scowls; this man whistles, that one swears; here the serenity of indifference, there the serenity of despair. Now the bell begins to ring. What slow and toilsome ascent up the narrow stairs! What a sudden bolting into the recitation room as the last stroke dies away, and the door closes with a slam behind the last loiterer, and upon a division meekly expectant of the hour’s worse contingencies.*

I am always struck by the intimate relationship the students had with the college bell. To them, the sound of the college bell is the sound of authority—to disobey its bidding is tantamount to disobeying their superiors. The college bell was controlled by the university administration to direct the students to their next daily event: meals, chapel, classes, curfew. They revel in their precious free moments before their class, and as soon as the bell starts ringing, they slowly make their way to the classrooms. I can easily envision a bunch of impish teenage boys intentionally walking as slowly as possible to the classrooms, only to dart to their seats at the very last moment, right when the last bell stroke decayed. They could have only pulled off these shenanigans by knowing very well the timing of the college bell ringing. The closest equivalent to today would be high schoolers dashing to their seats during the class bell. I don’t know of any colleges or universities that still ring bells to direct students to classes and such, only of bells that ring at designated times (on the hour, every 15 minutes, etc.). Do you know of any?

* John Addison Porter, ed. Sketches of Yale Life: Being Selections, Humorous and Descriptive from the College Magazines and Newspapers. Washington, D.C.,: Arlington Publishing Co., 1886.

Why Bells?

Why am I writing a blog on bells? Or, more to the point, why would bells interest those besides bell performers and experts? I’m going to make a bell aficionado out of you, and here’s why:

1) The sounds of bells are one of the few in the Western hemisphere that have continued on from the middle ages to today as signals. Now, many of our modern musical instruments are based on ones from this time period; I’m not arguing that bells as musical instruments are unique in this regard. And there are many natural sounds from ancient times that persist (animals, the wind in the trees, etc.). Cities in the middle ages were noisy places!

But think about sounds from man-made sources from the premodern period that function as signals…how many of them do we still use today? Not many. Early on bells signaled a variety of communications, such as fire or curfew, while these days they signal things like the beginning of a church service. Can you think of any other man-made signals that started over a millennium ago that we still use today? Drums are one example. Let me know any others in the comments!

This unbroken use of bells in community settings in the Western world gives us unparalleled insight into our communities over time. What does the changing use and meaning of bells tell us about the changes in our communities? What, if anything, has endured about the bells over the ages? How can we make bells relevant to our communities for another millennium? Bells have lasted for this long—there must be something special to them worth exploring!

2) As alluded to above, bells can function both as signal and musical instrument, so that the sound of bells can be musical or not, depending on its use. What other musical instruments are functionally employed as signalers? Again, not many. Trumpets and drums come to mind. Any others? This in-between position for bells are what make them so interesting—the same set of bells can be heard as a musical instrument in one context and not in another. How do we determine whether bell sounds are musical or not? Exploring bell sounds gets to the heart of why we hear any sound as musical, or not.

In short, the meaning of the sounds of bells over time tells us something about our history, while the meaning within a particular context tells us something about how we define music. I’ll be coming back to these themes in the future, don’t you worry.