Bell Clock

Web Interface

The Bell Clock Project

A public performance installation that will play non-religious musical themes in the form of bells or chimes at certain times of day or certain days of the year.


This audio art project lies at the intersection of four political vectors -
  • The Establishment Clause (separation of Church and State)
  • the First Amendment (Freedom of Speech)
  • Copyright Law, Publishing Rights and Fair Use
  • Local Noise Ordinances
In the public acoustic space, we are presented with sounds of all kinds - traffic noise, airplanes, sub-woofers in cars, ice-cream trucks, leaf-blowers, sirens, and even church bells. The latter is what got this project started. 


As I was gardening in my back yard on a Sunday morning, I heard the familiar ringing of one of our local church bells. I didn't recognize the tune, but I looked it up later and found words that were pretty heavily on the side of "Jesus being the only way". Don't get me wrong - I like those sounds as they drift across my own backyard, I just realized that the Churches seemed to have a monopoly on which songs were played in the public space. And I began to wonder about how hard it would be to play songs of my own choosing into the public arena. I decided to design an audio playback system that could project songs of my own choosing into the public space. I didn't want to playback pre-recorded pop music or anything that would start to generate complaints, or worse yet, the dreaded "stereo wars" that I remember from my college dorm days. I liked the timbre of bells and chimes and wanted to play just the melodies of songs that were meaningful, or just beautiful to me and use the sounds of bells or chimes so that it would not sound out of the ordinary for people not paying attention to the songs themselves. I started out thinking I could just put up a PA horn on my roof and hit play on my stereo. But before I tried that, I started to do some research.

Local Noise Ordinances:

The Local Noise Ordinance where I live is rather strict, and limits sounds that are heard outside of your own property to 55 dB. In the industrial zone, the limit is 65 dB.  I find the limitation of "noise" based on a measurement of decibels to be rather artificial.  Two sounds can have the same overall loudness (as measured by a decibel meter), but they can be preceived as either pleasant (like music) or unpleasant (like a leaf blower). I was worried that I wouldn't be able to playback anything loud enough to carry across a larger area.  But there is an exception in the ordinance (8.25.060 - B) which says, in part:

5. Exclusions. These levels shall not apply to noise emitted by or related to:

a. Natural phenomena.
b. Any bell or chime from any building clock, school, or church

Now, I am not a church or a school, but it seemed to me that any building could have a "building clock" (which is not defined in the ordinance in any way).  And while I wasn't originally interested in building a clock, by adding a clock into the structure, I think I have the ability to play sounds of a "bell or chime" from a "building clock".  In my case, I was planning on playing back audio soundfiles through a PA speaker. I'm not sure if a strict reading of the ordinance would require the sounds to be created by actual physical bells or chimes, but I think many churches use electronic playback mechanisms through speakers located in their own towers.

About the Author:

Jim Wheaton is a computer professional and inventor. He has helped run Chimera Arts Makerspace for over 6 years. He has authored or co-authored 8 patents; His other public art endeavors include the Occupy Bench in downtown Sebastopl and the Meter Made sculpture in downtown Santa Rosa.