Chime for a change Toll plaza?: Real or synthetic, Ellicott City's church bells ring sweet melodies.

December 24, 1996

FEW THINGS are as ubiquitous as noise -- from the din of television and radio in homes to roaring highway traffic to jarring workplace sounds. Noise can jolt, annoy and awaken. But not all noise is bothersome. Walk through Ellicott City's Main Street at high noon and the noise is bound to delight. The sound of bells from two churches and, recently, the Howard County Historical Society cascade from high towers down the hills to shower their dulcet tones.

Smiles cross the faces of some tourists hearing the music for the first time. Talk to residents and workers accustomed to the ritual and you'll find that many enjoy the melodies that punctuate the workaday fare.

St. Paul's Catholic Church has played its bell for 158 years, and Emory United Methodist Church has played electronic rods that emulate the sound of church bells at certain hours of the day and audio tapes of religious tunes at others. Last month, the historical society chimed in daily at noon, ringing its bell from atop its museum, which is in a former Presbyterian church.

The few connoisseurs of chimes might complain about Emory's synthetic sound, but real or fake, the notes strike a pleasant chord with most listeners.

Remarkably, the chimes don't clash at noon on Main Street. The bells of St. Paul's and the historical society play for a moment or so before giving way to Emory's noon recordings, which now are dinging and donging Christmas carols. The chimes conjure a sense of history -- if not Quasimodo -- and they serve to perpetuate Ellicott City's small-town image.

Benevolent as they seem, however, church bells can irritate. In Baltimore's Waverly community two years ago, neighbors of St. Johns-Huntingdon Episcopal Church formed a group called HUSH -- Humans United for Safer Hearing -- opposing the frequent chimes. The Maryland Department of the Environment, city officials and noise control consultants eventually got involved.

Ellicott City's chimes have not brought such a negative response from shop owners or residents who live in the historic district. For them, the most heated arguments appear to be over whether the real bells or the electronic ones are superior. Indeed, on Main Street, the chimes they are a-changing.

Pub Date: 12/24/96

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