Bells are one of the oldest musical instruments, dating back thousands of years. Unlike the harp, which has been associated with divinity in Christianity, the bell has often been associated with the devil due to its use in meditation and many pagan religions. Ironically, bells gain extensive usage in Christian churches despite this association.
However, the bell is far more than a mere musical instrument, and bells appear everywhere in our daily lives. Here is a sample of the many different kinds of bell and what they’re used for.
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Different Types of Bell
This traditional African instrument has two to four conical bells of different sizes attached together. It’s played by striking the different bells to gain different notes.
2. Alarm Bells
These bells are best known for being part of traditional alarm clocks. Two bowl-shaped bells are mounted on top of the clock. Some had a hammer that would shift between them, striking both. Other models had individual hammers.
Alarm bells were also used in rotary telephones, with older models having them on the outside and more recent models hiding the bells inside of the phone’s plastic shell.
A third common use of alarm bells are fire alarms, which are generally wall-mounted and painted red.
3. Altar Bell
In many ways resembling a tambourine, the alter bell is one or several bells attached to a ring. This ring is shaken to make all of the bells ring at once. As the name implies, the altar bell is often used at the altar in Catholic churches.
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4. Bicycle Bell
These bike-mounted bells are usually enclosed. A lever can be flicked to make two metal disks clang against each other inside the shell. While mainly used for bike safety, there have been rare occasions where groups of bicycle bells have been used to make music.
Some churches employ a series of bells beyond the church bell. Carillons are a collection of bells in different sizes that are played by an instrument similar to an organ.
While most churches have 23 bells in their carillon, concert models have 48 or more, making them one of the largest types of instrument alongside pipe organs and earth harps.
While not often associated with bells, chimes are one of the most popular types. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can be a wide range of materials. They are suspended from a bar and lack a clapper, instead producing sound when they collide with one another or are struck.
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7. Church Bell
One of the most famous types of bell, the church bell is a large metal bell and clapper that flares at the base and is usually suspended from a wooden beam. The beam is shifted by pulling a rope, which causes the bell to swing.
Small groups of church bells may be gathered in larger structures to further amplify the sound or create multiple tones.
With an oval, boxlike shape, the cowbell has a very different appearance than most common bells. The shape allows for louder, more controlled ringing and is used for a wide range of animals.
The bells allow the owners to locate any strays more easily. Due to its simplicity, it is also a common fixture in percussion sections.
9. Crotal Bell
Most commonly seen on horse-drawn vehicles, the crotal bell is a pair of two hollow brass balls with a smaller ball about the size of a pea in each.
As the cart moved, the natural bounce from the cobbles and airflow would cause the bells to ring, alerting others to the cart’s presence.
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10. Diving Bell
A prime example of how innovation can create something new out of something old, the diving bell was originally a bell-shaped shell which was lowered into the water vertically. Divers could then breathe the air trapped inside the bell.
The earliest known record of a diving bell was written by Aristotle, who described Greeks using upturned cauldrons to breathe underwater.
Open bell-shaped designs have severe limitations in how deep they can go, so a number of other shapes have also been used. By 1689, bells began to feature hoses that allowed fresh air to be injected. Later innovations included a closed design and even electricity. Today, diving bells look nothing like their early ancestors, but still retain the name.
The earliest doorbells were rung by pulling a small cord attached to an actual bell inside the house. Nowadays, doorbells are primarily electronic (and prone to malfunction).
Those who have mechanical doorbells either love their reliability or loathe their abusability.
12. Hand Bell
Boasting the same classic bowl design as the church bell, these handheld bells include a long handle and generally are rung by shaking it. Some have free-moving clappers, allowing them to be rung with minimal effort. Others have spring-loaded or single-direction clappers that require a strong flick of the wrist.
While sometimes being used for music, these bells are more commonly used to draw attention and were a common tool of town criers in Medieval times.
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13. Service Bell
Sometimes referred to as a call bell, this is a small bell that’s usually kept on a desk or counter.By hitting a button on the top, the hammer inside strikes against the bell’s walls.
They are most often used in the service industry to alert clerks of a customer’s presence.
14. Shopkeeper’s Bell
This is a bell that serves as both doorbell and service bell. Often, it is a small hand bell which is suspended by the top of the shop’s door. When a customer opens the door, the mechanism hits the bell, causing it to swing and ring out.
15. Sleigh Bell
Despite the name, sleigh bells are a close relative of the crotal bell and incredibly common. As a musical instrument, they’re often attached in a row onto a leather strap. Singly, they can often be seen adorning cat collars.