Bells vs. Instrumental Music


Our Church prescribes that no instrumental music be used in our services, but only the human voice.

Yet bells aren't a human voice, they're an instrument! So why do we use bells? And if we use bells, why not other instruments?


The answer of course is that bells are not accompaniment to the music sung in church.

Bells originated in the Church's need to find ways of notifying people of the commencement and other important moments of the services or other events, and once they had developed to the point where they did more than just make a racket that could be heard at some distance, it was natural to strike them festally whenever appropriate, just as we also do with all of the semantra in the monastery on Pascha night. But if bells can be compared to any type of musical instrument, it would be to the trumpets and drums that ancient armies used to rally and to signal tactical manoeuvers to the troops in the field, rather than to the "instruments of song" (keli zemer) referred to in the Bible.

(In fact, most of the earliest bells we have were used on horses in battle.) Bells are intended for the exterior acoustic space of the church; they are architectonic and social in a way that the chanting that goes on inside the church is not. "Make your church the center of a sacred soundscape" is one of the headlines we use in promoting our bells, because their function is precisely this, and this is what we want people to understand and to do. Of course, bells and chanting do have similar functions, insofar as both are involved in the Church's "proclamation"-- but then, so do architecture or iconography, in their own ways and with regard to their own "audiences": just about everything the Church does, in one way or another can be considered as an expression of its proclamation.

Nonetheless it is interesting that most (but not all) of the traditions I am familiar with do not call for any ringing of bells to mark the Gospel, the Sanctus, the words of institution, the epiklesis, It Is Truly Meet, the end of the Anaphora, the Lord's Prayer, or Communion. (I have seen the gospel announced, and all typika call for ringing the big bell 12 times during or at the end of the Creed, to signal the beginning of the Anaphora.) In the first place, ringing at the times mentioned would require the bell ringers to absent themselves from the church at crucial moments of the service, when the Church is fully concentrated within herself, as it were, focusing and attending strictly on the awesome mystery which is taking place in her heart. Bells belong to the external presence of the Church, rather than to its internal action-- if we can put it this way, their primary context is kerygma, not theoria.

Naturally, everything we do externally, should (and in the Church, does) spring from what is inward and ownmost. But arguably, church music, including perhaps especially those parts of it which are more melismatic and even designed so that they can expand to fill the "soft moments" of the liturgy such as the clergy communion, really have as their primary milieu the Church's contemplation.

I think one place where we can notice for ourselves the difference between the purpose of bells and that of chanting is in our feeling of incongruity when we enter a church where they are playing a recording of bells. Our sense of incongruity arises not just from the fact that the bells on the tape are usually those of some huge tower in Russia, and therefore completely out of scale with the temple in which the recording is being played-- or even from the fact that by playing a recording the church is doing something artificial, in an artificial manner (that is, in effect, lying)-- but from the fact above all that the "bells" are being played indoors, for the congregation's enjoyment, whereas they obviously belong outdoors, for public announcement. It is more than strange to us that the Church's annunciation ("blagovest") has been reduced to "atmospherics"! And in fact this reduction strikes us even as a kind of cameo of everything else we do that just doesn't work.

Instruments such as organs, clarinets, violins, and guitars on the other hand have as their primary purpose not announcement, but accompaniment, and they act to enhance the emotional qualities of the music, if not to express pure emotion in a wordless fashion. They are well fit for the enjoyment and delectation of the listeners but, as we said, their voices are "alogoi", not characterized by logos; and in expressing emotion, they come perilously close to evoking the passions-- which is the ground on which many of the fathers spoke against their use in church.

The primary function of chant, however, is not enjoyment or entertainment or delectation, but the proclamation of the Word of God; it developed out of a need not only to solemnize the community's celebration, but also to communicate the words of the Word to large groups of people in an era when artificial amplification was not an option. But precisely for this reason we avoid excessive coloration or harmonization in chant (well, at least we should avoid it, canonically)-- because our main goal and priority is to communicate the Word to the people of God, and to involve them in those words which were and are sung by the incarnate Word to God his Father. As we all know, because of the priority given to "praying with the understanding" (1Co 14.15), at least until recently, the Orthodox Church has always insisted on the vernacular in its divine services.

There is, of course, something to be said for aesthetic beauty-- a good deal to be said, actually. Where, indeed, would our services be without it? But even if the Church does have some very melodious and melismatic exaposteilaria, for example, it nevertheless draws the line at accompanying them with instrumentation, in view of the logos-character of all its worship (logike latreia).

The litia is a service of intercession for the civil community, its appropriate space is outside the temple, or at least in its outer courts, at the threshold where society and Church meet each other. In that place, the Church opens up to society, takes its cares into her own concern, and enfolds its members, its activities, and its world in her own motherly bosom-- and also, standing in leaderly formation in and with society, she orients it as she faces eastward in the triumphant expectation of her prayer.

If in the litia the Church goes forth from the temple to gather the civil society together and to bring it to the Dawn, then by a similar token through the ringing of bells her "joyous message of the Resurrection" goes forth from the Morningstar that rises in her heart and penetrates to "all the ends of the earth", immediately orienting the attention of every listener to the Holy Table where that Dayspring does indeed appear to us from on high.

Thus in the ringing of bells the Church indeed fulfills herself as the center of a sacred soundscape, the soundscape at whose heart is the incarnate Logos. Bells are the resonant expression (ekphoresis) of her eucharistic life, "to the city and to the world" (urbi et orbi). For us, now that the Logos has come, the Psalmist's call to "praise Him with timbrel and harp" means "with action and contemplation", not simply with instruments of harmony. Yet traditionally, we announce the occasions on which this Incarnation is fulfilled (teleiothenai) with bells, and not without reason was the "mighty roar" of the zvon known among some native Asian peoples as "the voice of the Christian God"-- for as Christianity triumphed in Russia, the Russian people required instruments that could express, as adequately as possible, the power they knew in Christ. In some cases that roar could be heard as far as 30 miles away, and it shook the foundations of the city itself. Yet within the church, in the depths of mystery, all is silence, in which the only voices heard are those of the Bridegroom and his Bride.