Chapman Challenge: The History of Handbells

KUSC’s Alan Chapman has a lot to say about music, but can he say it in 60 seconds? That’s the Chapman Challenge. We ask a question and Alan has a minute to answer it.

Today’s question is from Joseph in Phoenix, Arizona. He writes, “I was watching a handbell choir on television and I was wondering how they split up the melody.”

Hit play below to listen to this week’s Chapman Challenge on Arts Alive.


I had to start this one with a little handbell music.

First, let me mention that handbells weren’t originally meant to play tunes. They came about in connection with European bell towers. The ringers sounded those bells by pulling on ropes and creating patterns of notes rather than melodies. It’s called “change ringing.”

It seems that handbells were developed so ringers could practice their patterns away from the bell tower. Eventually, the handbells became a medium for melodies and special arrangements.

In a handbell ensemble, each ringer has anywhere from two to six bells and the music is simply divided among all the ringers, which means they better all be there for the rehearsals and performances.

Handbells came to America from England in the nineteenth century. And it may have been thanks to P.T. Barnum, who engaged a group of English ringers for an American tour, provided that they grow mustaches, wear colorful clothing and allow themselves to be billed as “Swiss bell ringers.”

Here’s a more intricate handbell arrangement:

That’s today’s Chapman Challenge. Is there a question you’d like to have answered in 60 seconds? Send it to us at [email protected]

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Alan Chapman

Alan Chapman

Alan Chapman, in addition to his weekday morning program, is also the host and producer of two weekend programs: Modern Times and A Musical Offering.

After receiving his undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he earned a Ph.D. in music theory from Yale University. He is currently a member of the music theory faculty of the Colburn Conservatory. He was a longtime member of the music faculty at Occidental College and has also been a visiting professor at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. His analytical work has appeared in the Journal of Music Theory and in The New Orpheus: Essays on Kurt Weill, winner of the Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing on music.

Well known as a pre-concert lecturer, Alan has been a regular speaker on the L.A. Philharmonic’s “Upbeat Live” series since its inception in 1984. He also works closely with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Pacific Symphony. His lectures have been presented by virtually every major performing organization in southern California. He has been heard globally as programmer and host of the inflight classical channel on Delta Airlines.

Alan is also active as a composer/lyricist. His songs have been performed and recorded by many artists around the world and have been honored by ASCAP, the Johnny Mercer Foundation, and the Manhattan Association of Cabarets. His children’s opera Les Moose: The Operatic Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle was commissioned by LA Opera for its 1997-98 season. Alan frequently appears in cabaret evenings with his wife, soprano Karen Benjamin. They made their Carnegie Hall debut in 2000 and performed at Lincoln Center in 2006. Their recent CD, Que Será, Será: The Songs of Livingston and Evans, features the late Ray Evans telling the stories behind such beloved songs as “Mona Lisa” and “Silver Bells.”