Music & Resources

Handbell Notation Guide & Difficulty Levels

The Handbell and Handchime Notation Guide

The industry-standard reference book for handbells and handchimes, now available in its eighth edition. Handbell/handchime notation, difficulty levels, and solo and ensemble notation are covered in this three-part, thirty-two-page book. Revised 2010.  Available from most handbell retailers or directly from Lorenz Publishing, distributor of AGEHR Music Publications.

The Handbell and Handchime Music Difficulty Level System

Taken from the Handbell an Handchime Notation Guide ©2010 AGEHR Music Publishing

Assigning Difficulty Levels to Handbell and Handchime Music

Rhythm, Articulation, Dexterity
The AGEHR, Inc.
As handbell and handchime repertoire and techniques have increased in number and complexity, the need for a method of assigning difficulty levels has become apparent. Having music available with an assigned difficulty level will:

  • help directors select repertoire best suited for their choirs
  • help directors select literature that requires specific skills and
    techniques
  • assist teachers in creating a curriculum
  • provide a framework for educational assessment
  • serve as a motivational tool that encourages choirs to improve their skills
  • help publishers select new releases for a balanced catalogue

The following system should be used only as a guide. Tempo, number of ringers, handbell assignments, etc. will have a dramatic effect on the difficulty of any music selected.

Comments for Directors, Publishers, and Editors

1.  Key changes and accidentals ARE handbell and handchime changes.

2.  Tempois VERY IMPORTANT in assigning level of difficulty.

3.  Handchimes should be considered as a special category. However, when used with handbells within the same piece, a handchime should be considered a “handbell” change.

4.  When a piece contains a six-measure (or less) phrase of technical difficulty above the specific level assigned, the piece should not   be raised to the next level of difficulty. That phrase   should  be treated as a “special practice” spot for learning.

5.  Shelley, four-in-hand, grace notes, and sharing of handbells are directors’ decisions based on the size of the group, number of handbells, and dexterity of the ringers.

6.  Difficulty levels are assigned for “traditional size” handbell choirs, i,e., 11-13 ringers. All levels are cumulative.

7.  Each difficulty level is described by 8 criteria. They should be used to determine the level of the work before selection.

8.  On multiple octave publications different levels may be assigned to specific octave designations. Example: a 3-5 octave publication may have the following designations: 3 octave – L3, and 4-5 octave – L4.

9.  A plus or minus may be added to any level designation when appropriate.

Level 1

  1. Meters:4/4, C (common time), 3/4, and 2/4
  2. Notes and/or Rest Values:whole, dotted-half, quarter
  3. Rhythmic Elements:no subdivision of beats, simple use of ties
  4. Techniques: ring, shoulder damp, Sk, TD, echo, martellato, Sw, RT – all with adequate preparation time
  5. Handbell/Handchime Changes:none (no accidentals)
  6. Articulation: see Techniques
  7. Dynamic Levels: all from pp to ff in homophonic style (all ringing at the same level) with limited use of crescendo or diminuendo
  8. Tempo: slow to moderate

Level 2

  1. Meters: 2/2, cut time, 3/2, and simple mixed meters of 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4
  2. Notes and/or Rest Values: eighths, the dotted-quarter followed by an eighth, simple combinations of eighths and quarters
  3. Rhythmic Elements: syncopation – simple patterns such as eighth-quarter-eighth, anacrusis – pick-up notes or upbeats and their effect on the final measure
  4. Techniques: table damp, Pl, martellato-lift, malleting, and any combination of two different techniques with adequate preparation time
  5. Handbell/Handchime Changes: limited number of changes per ringer with adequate preparation time
  6. Articulation: see Techniques
  7. Dynamic Levels: crescendo and diminuendo, polyphonic style with simple dynamic contrasts (such as two voices having different dynamic levels)
  8. Tempo: slow to moderate

Level 3

  1. Meters:6/8, 3/4 (in one pulse per measure), 3/8, 9/8, 12/8, 6/4
  2. Notes and/or Rest Values: sixteenth, dotted-eighth and sixteenth note patterns, triplet
  3. Rhythmic Elements:syncopation such as

  1. Techniques:Brush Damp
  2. Handbell/Handchime Changes:extensive number of changes per ringer
  3. Articulation: combinations of techniques in eighth-note patterns at moderate tempi
  4. Dynamic Levels: subito piano or subito forte without rest, more complex polyphony with more than two independent voices, more rapid shifts of dynamic levels
  5. Tempo: more changes of tempo within the work

Level 4

  1. Meters:mixed of 6/8 and 3/4, 5/4
  2. Notes and/or Rest Values: all of previous at faster tempo, triplet over two beats
  3. Rhythmic Elements: syncopation – more complex, using sixteenth-notes and ties
  4. Techniques:Brush Damp
  5. Handbell/Handchime Changes:extensive number of changes per ringer
  6. Articulation: combinations of techniques in eighth-note patterns at moderate tempi
  7. Dynamic Levels: subito piano or subito forte without rest, more complex polyphony with more than two independent voices, more rapid shifts of dynamic levels
  8. Tempo: more changes of tempo within the work

Level 5

  1. Meters: irregular meters
  2. Notes and/or Rest Values: dotted rhythms in compound meters at fast tempi, duples against triples
  3. Rhythmic Elements:syncopation – more complex, mixed patterns

  1. Techniques: ring-hook-damp sequences, handbell passes at moderate tempi
  2. Handbell/Handchime Changes:unlimited
  3. Articulation:any combination at faster tempi
  4. Dynamic Levels: rapid shifts between levels with no preparation, more frequent use of crescendo and decrescendo
  5. Tempo: more changes of tempo within a work including abrupt shifts

Level 6

  1. Meters:unlimited
  2. Notes and/or Rest Values: more than four eighth or sixteenth-notes to a pulse (such as five, six, seven, etc.), thirty-second notes
  3. Rhythmic Elements:complex rhythms at any tempo
  4. Techniques: all, any tempo
  5. Handbell/Handchime Changes:unlimited
  6. Articulation: unlimited combinations at any tempo
  7. Dynamic Levels:no limits on shifts (sudden or gradual) or accents
  8. Tempo: only those imposed by the nature of the instrument, complex changes within a work

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