Bells are one of the oldest percussion instruments which managed to spread across Asia, Middle East, Europe and the rest of the world with incredible speed and popularity. Their unique ability to produce strong sounds that can reach vast distances was used by numerous cultures and ancient civilizations as a mean of communication, and later on as a musical instrument.
Earliest examples of bells can be traced to the ancient China, some 4000 years ago. Because bells are made from metal, their first appearance in modern history started in the 1st millennia BC. During that time, Chinese metalworkers started binding together pairs of tiles, creating an enclosed chamber with opened door that can amplify the sound that is bouncing inside. In the beginning those bells were used only as a means of spreading information, such as notifying workers that their work day is done. By 3rd century BC metallurgic processed advanced in such way that the production of the “two note bell” or “musical bell” became very popular. This design had a special shape that can create two notes, which enabled bell to become part of various musical performances.
Rise of the popularity of the bells in the china soon enabled it to become a status symbol. Elaborate designs of bells started appearing all across the country with royals and nobility viewing it as a symbol of power (Emperor had four bells on each side of his residence, duke or prince three bells, minister two and government official one).
After initial development in China, bells started spreading across Asia, often being deeply connected with the religion. Buddhism and Hinduism accepted bells as the integral parts of their religious ceremonies, with belief that temple cannot be called temple without a bell inside of it. Japanese Shinto religion also embraced bells, especially types called Suzu and Kane.
Fist popularization of bells in the western culture started in 5th century AD in Italy where Benedictine monks in the Campana region learnt how to cast iron and create bells that were shaped much differently than the modern church bells. The knowledge of bell making traveled across European churches during the next few centuries, eventually reaching all corners of the Europe. One of the most important moments in the popularization of church bells happened in 8th century, when English Saint by the name of Bede first introduced tradition of ringing bells at funerals. Only one century later, bells became integrated into rites and rituals of all churches across the lands that were once under the rule of the Western Roman Empire. The other regions of Europe that were under the rule of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Europe) were slow in adopting bells. Instead, they were used to the sound of the semantrons (narrow hand-held wooden slats that were hit up and down with hammers which produced laud rhythmic sound).
The absolute acceptance of bells came in 15th century, after the rise of Renaissance started changing architecture and the way of life all around the Europe. During that time, elaborately created bells found their home in grand bell towers. By 17th century, people started seeing that bells could be used as sophisticated musical instruments. Brothers Francois and Pierre Hemony of Belgium and the Netherlands were the first who managed to achieve this, creating bells that can produce five distinct tones.
Today, bells are used all around the world, in both religious ceremonies, music and various cultural events.