Sunday 22 January 2012

The Sound of England

What is the sound of England? Increasingly, down my way, it's the ear-splitting screech of overflying Ring-Necked Parakeets - but that is a most unEnglish sound and, happily, confined to southern parts (for now). If there is one sound that truly defines the English soundscape, it is surely that of change ringing - bells ringing out from a church belfry, rung to patterns of 'changes', rather than for melody. This kind of ringing is popular elsewhere, but generally among hand ringers; even in the lands of the former Empire, church towers hung with bells are few and far between. Only in England is the clangorous music of change ringing from church towers an everyday sound. Mix in the convivial cawing of a rookery and the gentle sound of willow on leather (neither of them unique to England), and there you have just about the most evocatively English soundscape imaginable.
As it happens, over on The Dabbler, Mahlerman has posted a typically luminous piece on the use of bells and bell sounds in music (that Khachaturian!). The continentals, of course, use bells in a different way from us - tolling single notes or playing melodies with the aid of a carillon (a kind of giant keyboard hung with bells). Does the sound of English bell ringing make its way into English music? It certainly does in this glorious anthem by Purcell.
Rejoice indeed!
There must be other examples - perhaps Mahlerman could devote a future Dabbler piece to them...


  1. The sound of England in my neck of the wood? No bells at all, for sure. The everyday music is a strange vuvusela-like screech and a man wailing something about old iron through a megaphone. There can't possibly be any metal left in these parts now. The other sounds are the neighbour's dog barking at me whenever I take a stroll around my own domain, the perennial roar from the ring road half a mile away, and the other neighbour strimming his blasted garden throughout the year. Oh dear. We gotta get outta this place.

  2. Miserablist that I am, I have always loathed the sound of change ringing. It has no purpose other than outside of itself. Tolling, on the other hand, I love: full of portent and meaning.

    The sound of England? Wood Pigeons calling in early spring.

  3. I sympathise, Recusant - there's a whiff of dangerous innovation about change ringing, which only got under way properly in the 17th century...
    Mary, you're right - you've got to get out of there!

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