Big Ben’s Bongs

The science behind one of UK’s most iconic sounds

A signature sound for Great Britain is the bongs of Big Ben, the giant bell housed within the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament. And tonight it will welcome in the New Year. There is something special about the sound. Listen to a bell chime and what at first seems a simple ring is actually a very complex sound. Why does it start with a clang? Why do the bongs have a dissonant warble?

At the start of the main strike there is a clank of metal on metal as the hammer hits the bell, which gradually fades into a sonorous ringing. While the initial hammer blow creates lots of high frequencies, these rapidly die away, leaving a gentler low frequency ring, which slowly warbles. The start of the note, the attack, is a fleeting moment, but it is incredibly important to identifying what is making the sound.

You can see all these features in the spectrogram below, which shows how the frequency content of the bell sound varies over time. The dark horizontal lines show the frequency components that make up the bongs. At the beginning to the left there are lots of dark lines across all frequencies from top to bottom – that is created by the clank of metal on metal. But the high frequencies have disappeared later as shown to the right. The warble show up as a dashed horizontal line, because that frequency component of the sound keeps fluctuating between quiet and loud.

The warble is created because Big Ben isn’t perfectly circularly symmetric. A large crack opened up on one side shortly after it was first installed because they used a hammer that was too heavy. This asymmetry changes how the bell flexes.


ASDEC (Advanced Structural Dynamics Evaluation Centre)

If you look at the video above and you’ll see a bell (not Big Ben) vibrating. These are the vibration patterns at the various frequencies that make up the bell sound. If a bell is not quite circularly symmetric, you actually get two notes being created that are very close in frequency. These then create beats where you hear a sound that is at an average of the two frequencies, which keeps slowly changes in amplitude from between quiet to loud. The video below has a nice demo about 1:20 into it. Beats is what creates the Big Ben Warble.

You can’t currently visit Big Ben because it is being renovated. But this is what it is like:

“A large 200 kg hammer drew back slowly before  crashing forward and striking the outside of the bell. Even with ear plugs in, the sense of power was visceral. The sound resonated the air in my chest like a pumping bass line in a nightclub. “

Sonic Wonderland / The Sound Book.

Big Ben is the iconic sound of New Year for the UK but what is the equivalent in other countries? Please let me know by commenting below.

Acknowledgements

Ben Ben modes: Advanced Structural Dynamics Centre at the University of Leicester

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