Westminster Quarters

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The Westminster Quarters is the name for a melody used by a set of striking clock bells to mark 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, from its use at the Palace of Westminster, 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. Note that these sounds have been recreated as electronic, midi files and do not necessarily represent the actual sounds of the bells:

First quarter:
 \relative c'' {\set Staff.midiInstrument = #"tubular bells"  \time 5/4 \key e \major gis4^"1" fis e b2\bar "|."|}
 \relative c' {\set Staff.midiInstrument = #"tubular bells" \time 5/4  \key e \major e4^"2" gis fis b,2 | e4^"3"  fis gis e2\bar "|."|}
Third quarter:
 \relative c'' {\set Staff.midiInstrument = #"tubular bells" \time 5/4  \key e \major gis4^"4" e fis b,2 | b4^"5" fis' gis e2 | gis4^"1" fis e b2\bar "|."|}
Full hour (3 o'clock example):
 \relative c' {\set Staff.midiInstrument = #"tubular bells"    \time 5/4 \key e \major e4^"2" gis fis b,2 | e4^"3"  fis gis e2 | gis4^"4" e fis b,2 |  b4^"5" fis' gis e2 | R1*5/4\fermataMarkup  \bar "||"  \clef bass \time 4/4 e,1^"Big Ben"  | e1| e1 \bar "|."| }

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, and so on).

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), while the second and fourth quarters (the half and full hours) finish on the tonic (E). This produces the satisfying musical effect that has contributed 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.


Big Ben (the Elizabeth Tower) at the Palace of Westminster, the namesake of the chime

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). 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 bars 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.

In 1851, the chime was adopted by Edmund Beckett Denison (an amateur horologist, and graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, who was very familiar with the St Mary's chime) for the new clock at the Palace of Westminster, where Big Ben hangs. From there its fame spread. It is now one of the most commonly used chimes for striking clocks.[3]

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.[4]

Other uses[edit]


The prayer inscribed on a plaque in the Big Ben clock room reads:[8]

All through this hour
Lord be my guide
That 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. ^ "What tune does Big Ben chime? And everything else you wanted to know about the country's most famous bell". Classic FM. Retrieved 26 February 2019.
  4. ^ "History". trinity-williamsport.diocpa.org. Retrieved 26 February 2019.
  5. ^ Widiarini (17 February 2017). "Yang Kadang Terlupa dari Stasiun Terbesar di Semarang". detikTravel (in Indonesian). Retrieved 16 June 2019.
  6. ^ Pilkington, Ed (19 September 2008). "New York Yankees say goodbye to cathedral of baseball". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  7. ^ "BBC New Talent: Advice for new TV composers". BBC. Retrieved 2 September 2006.
  8. ^ McKay, Chris (2010). Big Ben: the Great Clock and the Bells at the Palace of Westminster. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780191615085. Retrieved 2 August 2017.

External links[edit]