Handbells are a small percussion instrument. Now days, it is usually of brass or bronze, but sometimes of copper, clay, porcelain, glass, wood, or other hard material. They are attached to a stem, loop, or leather strap for a handle; most have a clapper, though some are struck externally. The earliest handbells were probably of beaten copper, but since the Bronze Age most metal bells have been cast.
Chinese artifacts shaped like fish mouths with handles date from 1600 BC. Though they may have been scoops for measuring rice, such shapes did become sets of hung bells by the 6th century BC, and thus may have been handbells earlier. Eighty bronze-cast findings from 7th-century BC Nineveh (in modern Iraq) seem to be handbells. Some 49 6th-century AD Irish bells, made of iron plate, hammered square and riveted, are preserved, the most famous being the Clog-an-Eadhacta Phatraic (Bell of St. Patrick’s Will) of about AD 552.
Handbells in various forms became part of rituals from ancient times to the modern Roman Catholic Angelus and Buddhist altar bells. The latter have a lotus flower design on the end of their handles, a symbol of creation that is also present on the handles of Hindu bells. Such handbells are used to punctuate segments of a ceremony. Other handbells have been used in ceremonies meant to exorcise demons or cure sickness.
Handbells have been used to signal and to attract attention. Examples include handbells used by street vendors, town criers, and night watchmen in the West. In ancient Greece they announced the opening of the fish market, and in Rome, of the public baths. The common practice of ringing handbells during funeral processions (often to ward off demons) was recorded on the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry. Medieval European peasants rang handbells in the fields as fertility charms.
European bell making was originally a monastic craft. The earliest Christian bells were of iron plates hammered square and riveted (resembling cowbells). Although bronze casting was practiced in pre-Christian Europe, it was not resumed to any extent until the 8th century.
The first tuned hand bells were developed by Ancient Vedic Civilizations, the ones who were situated in Indian Subcontinent; for example - Harrapan and Mohenjodaro Civilizations.
Between 1696 and 1724, Robert and William Cor in Aldbourne, Wiltshire, England, originally made latten bells for hame boxes, [a device that attaches to the top of a horse collar and contains several bells that ring when the horse moves]. But for reasons unknown, they began tuning their bells more finely to have an accurate fundamental tone, and fitted them with hinged clappers that moved only in one plane. A foundry in Loughborough, Leicestershire, that originated in the 14th century became John Taylor & Co in 1784.
Sets of handbells tuned diatonically (i.e., to a seven-note scale) first appeared in England in the 17th century, such as the ones made by the Cor brothers. They were used by change ringers to rehearse outside their towers. (Change ringing is a British form of pealing, whereby 5 to 12 bells are rung in mathematical permutations (different orderings in the ringing sequence), by pulling ropes attached to bell wheels. On five, six, or seven bells, a peal is the maximum number of permutations (orderings) possible.)
Tower bell ringers' enthusiasm for practicing the complicated algorithms of change ringing can easily exceed the neighbours' patience, so in the days before modern sound control, handbells offered them a way to practice change ringing without the aural assault. It was also pleasanter for the ringers to learn and practise in the warmth of the local pub rather than in a cold tower in winter. The handbell sets used by change ringers had the same number of bells as in the towers – generally six or twelve tuned to a diatonic scale.
By the 18th century, groups of ringers had branched out into tune playing, with the bells’ range expanded to several chromatic (12-note) octaves. Sets of handbells ranging up to five octaves have been popular in England and the U.S. since the 19th century as a group method for producing melodies and simple harmonies.
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.
In the United Kingdom, there is a distinction between "American handbells" and "English handbells." English handbells are traditional, with leather clapper heads and handles (such as the bells Whitechapel makes), while American handbells use modern materials, such as plastic and rubber, to produce the same effect (such as those produced by Malmark and Schulmerich). In America, however, they are all called English handbells.
English handbells are thought to have been introduced to America by the Peake Family Ringers in the 1830's and then in the 1840’s by P.T. Barnum. He introduced bell-ringing bands to the United States in 1847. Modern Western bell-ringing bands generally consist of 8 to 12 players, each of whom controls from 2 to 12 bells set out on a table.
In 1902, Margaret Shurcliff of Boston, was presented with a set of 10 handbells in London by Arthur Hughes, the general manager of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, after she completed two separate two-and-a-half-hour change ringing peals in one day. In 1923, Mrs. Shurcliff organized the Beacon Hill Ringers, followed by other groups forming in the Northeast United States. The New England Guild of Hand bell Ringers was formed in 1937 and then in the 1950's and '60's, hundreds of groups began to spring up throughout the United States in churches, schools and other organizations.
In 1954 the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers (AGEHR) was founded with Mrs. Shurcliff as its first President. The Guild publishes a newsletter which is credited for the advancement of bell ringing nationwide and serves as a conduit to further the advancement of bell ringing and to pass on information about national and regional festivals and new knowledge gained about the art of English Hand bell ringing.
In 2010, AGEHR became Handbell Musicians of America. It’s primary objectives are to educate, promote the exchange of ideas relating to handbell and handchime ringing, and sponsor educational activities.
Handbells were played in mixed instrumental ensembles, usually one bell in each of the player’s hands. A handbell choir or 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.
Due to handbell choirs having been predominantly used in church services—although less so now than in the 1980s and early 1990s—the majority of pieces last approximately four minutes. (For example, a non-church use was as backgound music to an outdoor public scene in a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.)
A few composers and arrangers write longer and more intricate works. Generally such pieces use handbells in combination with other instruments. There are examples of such arrangements on the internet and YouTube.
There are several major publishers providing printed handbell music, such as:
However, there are numerous handbell scores available from other sources for secular Holiday songs, such as from JW Pepper; lots of secular songs from Stanton's; and pop songs from Sheetmusicplus.
Costs associated with handbell music typically result from shipping (many scores are only published in hard-copy) and dissemination; as most scores do not permit duplication and must be purchased individually for each ringer.