Westminster Quarters

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The Westminster Quarters is the most common name for a clock chime melody used by a set of four 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 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.).

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 in modern concert pitch.


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, South Korea, China 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.
  • Brisbane City Hall plays the chimes every 15 minutes.
  • In Ottawa, the Peace Tower also signals the quarter hour using the Westminster Quarters.
  • 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 and arrival. Upon arrival of a train, the chimes will be looped continuously until it departs from the station.
  • The chimes are further adopted for many modern quartz chiming clocks. One example is Seiko Westminster-Whittington-St.Micheal 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][not in citation given]
  • The San Francisco Ferry Building clock tower, in San Francisco, sounds portions of the quarters on the half-hour and hour.
  • In Ralph Vaughan Williams' A London Symphony, the half hour (2/3) of the Westminster Chimes is heard at the beginning of the work and the three-quarter hour (4/5/1) at the end.
  • Louis Vierne's organ piece Carillon de Westminster is a set of variations on one of the five chimes.
  • Cyrillus Kreek's Requiem (1927) uses the chimes in the Introitus
  • 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 rock band U2 incorporated the Third Quarter chime as a guitar harmonic in the song "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" in 1980.
  • Dutch Eurodance duo 2 Unlimited incorporated the chimes in their 1992 song "Workaholic".
  • The Pikmin series uses the sound to signify the onset of sunset in any given day, encouraging the player to gather their Pikmin.
  • At Yankee Stadium, they play the chimes whenever a member of the New York Yankees scores a run, a tradition that began at their original ballpark. [4]
  • A variation of the chime is played by the Los Angeles Lakers NBA basketball team at home games whenever the Lakers make a three-point shot.
  • The chimes play if you make it to 6 am in Five Nights at Freddy's 1 2 and 3.


The prayer inscribed in the Big Ben clock room[5] 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.


  1. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference 2004
  2. ^ Claimed for example by Harrison, "Tolling Time", note 16 in Music Theory Online 6/4, October 2000.
  3. ^ http://www.academia.edu/3678893/Audible_Information_Design_in_the_New_York_City_Subway_System_A_Case_Study
  4. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/sep/20/usa
  5. ^ These may be seen on the wall of the Mechanism Room in the Big Ben virtual tour.

External links[edit]