Choosing Music

Music – Central Score or Individual Copies?

Whichever ringing style you choose, you also have to decide on the type of music you will use.

Some teams use a large central score of music on a music stand or blackboard easel, although ringers with poor eyesight may have difficulty in reading a central copy. If you eventually take the team along to rallies where there is ‘massed ringing’ (all teams ringing the same piece simultaneously), it may be difficult to keep in time with the others using this method. Remember you will need to write out every piece of music you play on large sheets of card, it's both time consuming and a storage problem. If in the longer term you play for an audience, the ringers may be obscured by the music.

Most teams prefer individual copies of music for each ringer and so use some form of music stand. These range from the metal floor standing type, to those which rest on the table. A few teams use shared music with one copy between two ringers.

Music Notation

Music for handbells can be purchased in a variety of forms. It is unlikely that all your team members will be proficient music readers so it will need marking up or re-writing (half the fun of meeting other teams is to see the different ways in which this is done).  The number of copies that you have is a matter of team preference, ranging from a single (central score) copy through one-between-two sharing to individual copies for each ringer.

No information on music would be complete without mention of Copyright. Generally speaking it is illegal to photocopy (or hand copy) music unless it is is specifically ‘copyright free’. You will therefore need to purchase one copy of the music for each of your music stands – whether you ring from the staff notation or convert it into another form.

So you now need to decide whether to ring from numbers (or letters) or staff notation. Most music is available in staff notation although some number notation music is still sold.

Staff notation
This is universal in the music world and therefore the preferred method for most teams. There are huge quantities of music written in staff notation that is suitable for, or written especially for, handbells.
Your ringers don’t all have to be ‘music readers’ to use this style. Because each ringer looks after just 2 bells primarily, they soon become familiar with their places on the staves. A chart or individual card beside each ringer with the notes written in (in bass and treble clef as appropriate) is an additional aid.
Try circling or highlighting each ringer’s notes on their music – using red for one hand (usually the right) and green for the other. Sharps and flats can be highlighted in another colour. This method is used by many of the big teams with a lot of experienced ringers and is also surprisingly successful with young children. 
But if you can ‘wean’ your ringers off marked music eventually you will find that there is much less work to do in preparing new pieces!

Staff notation variations

  • Full score: In most music purchased, both bass and treble lines are present with the ringer picking out the notes which relate to the bells he or she is in charge of. Children who learn a musical instrument at school are quite familiar with the treble clef but may not be used to the bass. By carefully selecting parts for new ringers, they will learn not only to play bells but also, eventually, to read music.
  • Middle C: In some music arranged for handbells 'middle C' is on the treble stave whereas in other music it is on the bass stave. Obviously this has implications for the allocation of bells to ringers: when C is on the treble clef it will be easier to pair it with the D but when it is on the the bass stave it may be paired with the B (unless of course you have a ringer who is happy to ring notes on both staves). The allocation of the 'middle C' bell will therefore have implications for the rest of the team. It can be confusing, particularly for new ringers, to have one pairing e.g. B and C, in one tune and then move ‘half a pair’ in the next (i.e. C in the right hand for one tune, C in the left for the next!) 
  • Treble and bass staves only: Some teams use music where each ringer has a copy of the music showing only the treble or the bass stave, whichever his notes are in. This looks easier but means that if the bass ringer, fo example looses their place, they may not be able to 'see' where the melody is to get beck in.
  • Ghosted score: In this case the whole tune is written out in ‘ghost’ form but the notes played by any ringer are highlighted or coloured in. Thus perhaps two people can share one copy, one set of notes marked in red, one in green. The fact that the rest of the tune is there helps the ringer to keep his place more easily and to see the rhythm of the piece.
  • Part score: (Sometimes called ‘William Gordon music’ after the Stockport music publisher of the 1880’s who produced a great deal of music in this form). Only notes relating to the bells handled by one ringer are present on the copy, so each ringer has a personal copy.

Numerical notation:
Many teams with small sets of bells use this method very successfully. It originates from the church bell ringing practice of numbering the bells 1 to 12 (or however many there are in the tower). When bell numbers get into double figures, however, no matter how clear you think the music is, someone is sure to play bells numbered 1 and 2 instead of bell 12! 
Number systems vary between teams, depending on the number of bells and notes they have in their set. Some number from the bass bell upward, others from the top bell downwards!  This makes it very difficult to have  a ‘standard’ numbering system and the availability of music in numbered notation is therefore limited.
Bear in mind that if you choose to have individual or shared copies then it could be time consuming if you have to write them all out.

Alphabetical notation:
Some teams use the letter of the note, i.e. A to G. But this method too has its limitations if you have more than one octave of bells, because you will need to distinguish between the different octaves, perhaps by using a different colour or letter style for each.

By tying a coloured tape to the handle of each bell and using a colour chart corresponding to the notes, a very simple tune can be rung successfully, even by very small children. There is not really enough scope in this for serious ringing but it does make an enjoyable evening and entertaining ‘party piece’ for audience participation.

These numerical and alphabetical methods present  can problems when a tricky rhythm is required. Usually a long line ( – ) after a note can indicate a held note and another symbol can denote a short note but beyond that, some rhythms are hard to define.

Where do I buy handbell music?

HRGB publish two ranges of music; go to our shop or join HRGB for access to many other publishers and resources.