Why do bells sound different in the cold?

by Faithful Friar
Friday was cold. Orleans was as low as 16 Fahrenheit (-9 Celsius) that morning. So I thought I’d write about how awesome the bells sound in the cold. But first, why do the bells sound different in the cold? Of course Cape Cod is quieter in the winter, less people, animals are for the most part huddled away or at least quiet in their winter foraging. However, there’s more to it, specifically, the concept of sound refraction. Here’s a quick physics 101 on sound refraction!
During the winter it’s common for pockets of colder air to form near the ground. And it turns out, sound travels faster in hot air, or we could also say, slower in cooler denser air. The difference we hear during the winter in long distance sound is often due to sound refraction. Sound refraction is similar to visual refraction which causes mirages in the desert or on hot pavement during the summer. If you’re a physics buff or need a little more explanation on refraction I’d recommend taking a look at Snell’s Law. For the rest of us, here’s an illustration showing sound travelling from the bell tower towards two cold Cape Codders:
An illustration of the physics behind bell tower sound in the cold on Cape Cod, from the Church of the Transfiguration at the Community of Jesus
As the sound travels from cold air at ground level, through a layer of warmer air above, the waves are bent back towards earth and our ears. The result: we hear more bell sound!
So even though our hands are barely warm enough to hold the rope, ringing in the winter sure can sound great. My favorite bell sounds, outside of good even striking (proper rhythm from all the ringers), are on a cold winter night, maybe even with a bit of fog or snow to muffle out everything else.
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About Faithful Friar

I am a 20+ year member of the Community of Jesus Brotherhood, so I live in the Friary with the other vowed brothers along with any novices or combination of guest/ resident men – young or old – who may be with us at any given time. Our vows are the same as any simple or solemnly professed Community member, with the addition of consecrated celibacy and poverty. I moved here shortly out of high school to study music for a summer. At the end of that summer I chose to stay here as a CJ member. Shortly thereafter I knew another change was needed, and asked to be accepted into the brotherhood first as a postulant, later as a novice. My life in the Brotherhood involves a variety of occupations, but they are centered on the continual service of prayer and praise in our church and on the outreach ministries springing from that service. This means manual labor as well as ongoing study and training: theological, musical, technical/ scientific, artistic, historical, philosophical, etc. Sometimes this involves teaching others, so that is part of our life too. It’s a life of poverty and yet full of hidden riches.

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