Ringing the bells for 700 years of recorded music

28 November 2021
Bellringers ring the Peal of Bells at St Patrick's Cathedral, Parramatta. Image: Diocese of Parramatta


From sharing Spotify playlists to personalising ringtones, recorded music has never been more part of our lives. The ability to record music finds its historical origins in objects like the first mechanical musical clock in Rouen, which will celebrate its 700th anniversary this year with celebrations on 28 November.

To celebrate this important anniversary, belltowers around Australia will sound with the ancient hymn Conditor alme siderum on 28 November, in imitation of the first mechanical musical clock to play a named tune.

The clock, installed in St Catherine’s Benedictine monastery in Rouen, France in 1321, used a set of wheels with pins to make tuned bells play the hymn which translates as “Dear God, Creator of the Stars”.

The St Catherine’s clock was among the first of a generation of musical clocks and related mechanical devices which changed daily life, the economy, and our sense of community through changing how we hear music and how we notice time.

Dr Matthew Champion, Chief Investigator of The Sounds of Time, an Australian Research Council-funded project at Australian Catholic University, is facilitating the anniversary celebrations. He said the first mechanical musical clock was an important landmark in how we understand time and how music affects our work and community.

“This is all about how people live with time. It’s the period where we developed the idea of the day divided into 24 equal hours. During this period, mechanical clocks were used to regulate work in burgeoning industries – especially the cloth trade – at a time crucial to the development of what we now recognise as industrialisation.

“Being able to reproduce music also enabled towns to develop personalities around music. Sound has a unifying function – that’s why music is important in forming community identity. We see that today with national anthems or football team songs. A town could choose a hymn for the town clock that represented the town, much as we would have a personalised ring tone.”

Long before Apple watches, or even mantelpiece clocks, towns kept time through public clocks, typically housed in belfries or in the towers of local churches and monasteries.

“There’s a tradition of tech geek monks who studied astronomy and developed a sense of time around their various prayer services. Making these clocks, involved complex geometry. They needed iron-smelting and skills in metal working. They were objects that pushed technological frontiers,” said Dr Champion.

Both church and civic belltowers in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, and several regional towns and cities will participate in the anniversary bellringing and the event will involve significant skill from manual bellringers who won’t have a tuned musical clock at their disposal.

Dr Champion said the warmth of response from the Australian bell ringing community has been impressive – even from groups unable to perform the tune on their bells because of technical issues or COVID. The interest in the anniversary, music, and history of technology, shows just how much history and music can inspire and form communities now, as it did 700 years ago.

At least eight belltowers will participate and another nine hope to be able to ring out the tune first heard on the mechanical clock of Rouen 700 years ago.

For more information on the history of time, visit The Sounds of Time website.

With thanks to ACU.


Read Daily
* indicates required