Westminster Quarters

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A midi file playing Westminster Quarters striking six o'clock (though not in the original key, E major)

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The Westminster Quarters is the most common name for a melody used by a set of clock bells to chime on each quarter hour. The number of chime sets matches the number of quarter hours that have passed. It is also known as the Westminster Chimes, or the Cambridge Quarters[1] from its place of origin, the church of St Mary the Great, Cambridge.


The melody consists of four different permutations of four pitches in the key of E major (1, 2, 4 and 5) plus one arrangement omitting B3 and repeating E4 (3). The pitches are B3, E4, F4 and G4.

The notes used are:

  1. g4, f4, e4, b3
  2. e4, g4, f4, b3
  3. e4, f4, g4, e4
  4. g4, e4, f4, b3
  5. b3, f4, g4, e4

played as three crotchets (quarter note) and a minim (half note). These are always played in the order 1,2,3,4,5, and each set is used twice every hour. Set (1) is played at the first quarter, sets (2) and (3) at the half, sets (4), (5) and (1) at the third quarter, and sets (2), (3), (4) and (5) at the hour, as follows:

First quarter: (1)
 \relative c'' {\time 5/4 \key e \major gis4 fis e b2|}
Half-hour: (2) (3)
 \relative c' {\time 5/4  \key e \major e4 gis fis b,2 | e4  fis gis e2|}
Third quarter: (4) (5) (1)
 \relative c'' {\time 5/4  \key e \major gis4 e fis b,2 | b4 fis' gis e2 | gis4 fis e b2|}
Full hour: (2) (3) (4) (5) + Big Ben (3 o'clock example)
 \relative c' {    \time 5/4 \key e \major e4 gis fis b,2 | e4  fis gis e2 | gis4 e fis b,2 |  b4 fis' gis e2  \bar "||"  \clef bass \time 4/4 e,1^"Big Ben"  | e1| e1 | }

The full hour chime is followed by one strike for the number of the hour by Big Ben (e3) (one strike for one o'clock, two strikes for two o'clock, etc.).

Size: 109 kBytes

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In other words, the cycle of five, (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), is played twice in the course of an hour. For a clock chiming mechanism, this has the advantage that the mechanism that trips the hammers need only store five sequences (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) instead of ten. The mechanism then plays two complete sets of five sequences for each complete hour. In musical terms, the first and third quarters finish on the dominant (B), whilst the second and fourth quarters (the half and full hours) finish on the tonic (E). This produces the very satisfying musical effect that has contributed so much to the popularity of the chimes. Note that the pitch of the Big Ben clip is closer to F than E.


The Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster, the namesake of the chime

This chime is traditionally, though without substantiation, believed to be a set of variations on the four notes that make up the fifth and sixth measures of "I know that my Redeemer liveth" from Handel's Messiah.[2] This is why the chime is also played by the bells of the so-called 'Red Tower' in Halle, the native town of Handel. It was written in 1793 for a new clock in St Mary the Great, the University Church in Cambridge. There is some doubt over exactly who composed it: Revd Dr Joseph Jowett, Regius Professor of Civil Law, was given the job, but he was probably assisted by either Dr John Randall (1715–99), who was the Professor of Music from 1755, or his brilliant undergraduate pupil, William Crotch (1775-1847).

In the mid-19th century the chime was adopted by the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster (where Big Ben hangs), whence its fame spread. It is now possibly the most commonly used chime for striking clocks.

According to the church records of Trinity Episcopal Church (Williamsport, Pennsylvania), this chime sequence was incorporated into a tower clock mechanism by the E. Howard & Co., Boston, MA. The clock and chime in Trinity's steeple base was dedicated in December 1875. It holds the distinction of being the first tower clock in the United States to sound the Cambridge Quarters.

Other uses[edit]

  • The chime is also used in some doorbells and school bells. Most of the schools in Japan and Taiwan play the chimes to signal the end and beginning of periods.
  • Some electronic civil defense sirens in the United States manufactured by Federal Signal Corporation such as the Electronic Outdoor Warning Siren (EOWS), Modulator, and the Directional Speaker Array (DSA) sound off the chimes on a daily basis. It is also used in Japan by some loudspeakers installed in public areas as a time signal.
  • In Ottawa, the Peace Tower also signals the hour as well as the national anthem.
  • On the Japanese game show Panel Quiz Attack 25 on TV Asahi, the chimes signal the end of the game when there are any boxes left on the board.
  • In Indonesia, train stations play this sound as a sign of train departure time and also sign that a train will arrive at the station.
  • The chimes are further adopted for many modern quartz chiming clocks. One example is Seiko Westminster-Whittington lineup.
  • Each of New York City Subway's rolling stock since the R44 model features the first two notes of the chimes as a warning to the passengers that the doors are closing.[3]
  • Recordings and performances of Carmen Ohio, the oldest school song of the Ohio State University, often include the Westminster Quarters as an introduction to the song, in reference to the bell tower at Orton Hall on the university's campus, which plays the melody.


The prayers inscribed in the Big Ben clock room reads:

All through this hour
Lord, be my guide
And by Thy power
No foot shall slide.

The conventional prayers are:

O Lord our God
Be Thou our guide
That by thy help
No foot may slide.

An alternative prayer changes the third line:

O Lord our God
Be Thou our guide
So by Thy power
No foot shall slide.

A variation on this, to the same tune, is prayed at the end of a Brownie meeting in the UK and Canada:

Oh Lord our God
Thy children call
Grant us Thy peace
And bless us all, Amen.

Musical references[edit]

The melody of the Westminster Quarters has been used in many other clocks. Among the musical works that make specific reference to the original are:

  • Louis Vierne, the French organist-composer, quoted the tune repeatedly in his organ piece Carillon de Westminster (1927), although his tune is slightly different from the original.
  • A London Symphony (1914), by Ralph Vaughan Williams, quotes the half hour chime in the introduction of the first movement and the first three quarters (sections) of the full hour chime in the coda of the last movement.
  • A very similar melody occurs in Johannes Brahms's Symphony No. 1, 4th movement, beginning at m. 30, played by solo Horn in the key of C major. The composer wrote that it was a quotation of an alphorn call he had heard. This melody predates the quarters; although the symphony was not performed until 1876, Brahms's sketches for it date from 1854.
  • The Westminster Waltz, a 1956 piece of light music by Robert Farnon, similarly quotes the chimes a number of times during the piece. For many years, it was used as a linking theme for the radio programme In Town Tonight.
  • Alan Menken, American musical theatre composer, quotes the chimes during the overture and denouement of the 1994 musical adaptation of "A Christmas Carol".
  • The theme tune to Yes Minister (a satirical British sitcom), written by Ronnie Hazlehurst, is based on the quarters.
  • The introduction to "Workaholic" by 2 Unlimited. A sample from this version is also played at Yankee Stadium when the New York Yankees score a run.
  • The chimes (in a marching band arrangement) are also used in the introduction to "Carmen Ohio", the school anthem of The Ohio State University. This is a reference to the familiar bell tower of Orton Hall on the OSU campus, the bells of which play the chimes on the quarter hour.
  • The chimes, played by the brass section of the Pride of the Rockies Marching Band, introduce "Ah, Well I Remember," the Alma mater for the University of Northern Colorado.
  • The chimes (originally from a nearby clock tower) are the basis of the Portsmouth F.C. chant Pompey Chimes. The original words as printed in the 1900-01 Official Handbook of Portsmouth FC, were: "Play up Pompey, Just one more goal! Make tracks! What ho! Hallo! Hallo!!"
  • The George Harrison song "Ding Dong, Ding Dong" on the 1974 album Dark Horse utilises the quarters as its chorus melody.
  • The Cheap Trick song "Clock Strikes Ten" references the quarters in the introduction.
  • The Devo song "Smart Patrol" uses the quarters in the chorus.
  • The Norwegian band Turbonegro uses the melody in a part of their song "The Age of Pamparius".
  • The Renaud song "Miss Maggie", uses the fourth and fifth as introduction, to emphasis its criticism levelled to Margaret Thatcher.
  • The beginning of the chimes is also used by Arsenal and rival supporters alike in football chants commenting upon either the occurrence of the Arsenal team toying with their opponents: "Same old Arsenal, taking the piss!" for fans of the former, or the occurrence of unsportsmanship from the Arsenal team: "Same old Arsenal, always cheating!" used by the latter.
  • The song "London" from Patrick Wolf's first album Lycanthropy uses the quarters as a bridging point at various points.
  • Several electronic civil defense sirens such as the Federal Signal EOWS use the hourly chime for testing purposes.
  • Eddie Van Halen used the chime for the background harmonies for his guitar solo in "Jump".
  • The tune is used in the guitar solo of the song "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" by the Irish rock band U2.
  • Composer Hans Zimmer quotes the quarters in the motion picture Sherlock Holmes. The chime can be heard in an extended action motif on the track "Psychological Recovery... 6 Months" at the 8:30 mark. The motif coincides with the construction of Tower Bridge in the film.
  • The tune is used at the Staples Center when the Los Angeles Lakers make a three-pointer. The tune is also used when the Los Angeles Kings, who also play in the Staples Center, go on a power play.
  • The Campanile at Iowa State University plays the tune in the exact manner as Big Ben.
  • The melody is used in the Aaliyah song "Rock The Boat".
  • The last two measures of the full hour chime are played at the very beginning of "Let 'Em In" by Paul McCartney and Wings.
  • Aztec Camera's "Deep and Wide and Tall" uses the melody at the beginning of the song as well as the song's bridge.
  • The win screen in Five Nights at Freddy's also contain that.
  • "Westminster Quarters" by indie rock band Los Doggies is a cover of the bell song with original lyrics.[4]


External links[edit]