A handbell is a bell designed to be rung by hand. To ring a handbell, a ringer grasps the bell by its slightly flexible handle – traditionally made of leather, but often now made of plastic – and moves the wrist to make the hinged clapper inside the bell strike. An individual handbell can be used simply as a signal to catch people’s attention or summon them together, but handbells are generally heard in tuned sets.
The first tuned handbells were developed by brothers Robert and William Cor in Aldbourne, Wiltshire, England, between 1696 and 1724. Originally, tuned sets of handbells, such as the ones made by the Cor brothers, were used by change ringers to rehearse outside their towers. Tower bell ringers’ enthusiasm for practicing the complicated algorithms of change ringing can easily exceed the neighbors’ patience, so in the days before modern sound control handbells offered them a way to continue ringing without the aural assault. The handbell sets used by change ringers had the same number of bells as in the towers – generally six or 12 tuned to a diatonic scale.
The bells used in American handbell choirs are almost always English handbells. “English handbells” is a reference to a specific type of handbells, not to the country of origin. While some American handbell choirs do use bells made in England, the majority play bells made either by Malmark Bellcraftsmen or by Schulmerich Bells, both based in Pennsylvania.
A handbell choir or handbell ensemble (in the United States) or handbell team (in England) is a group that rings recognizable music with melodies and harmony, as opposed to the mathematical permutations used in change ringing. The bells used generally include all notes of the chromatic scale within the range of the bell set. While a smaller group may use only 25 bells (two octaves, G4-G6), the sets are often larger, ranging up to an eight-octave set (97 bells, C1-C9). The bells are typically arranged chromatically on foam-covered tables; these tables protect the bronze surface of the bell, as well as keep the bells from rolling when placed on their sides. Unlike an orchestra or choir in which each musician is responsible for one line of the texture, a bell ensemble acts as one instrument, with each musician responsible for particular notes, sounding his or her assigned bells whenever that note appears in the music.