Westminster Quarters

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The Westminster Quarters, from its use at the Palace of Westminster, is a melody used by a set of four quarter bells to mark each quarter-hour. It is also known as the Westminster Chimes, Cambridge Quarters or Cambridge Chimes from its place of origin, the Church of St Mary the Great, Cambridge.[1]: 7–8 


The quarter bells shown hung around Big Ben, December 1858

The Westminster Quarters are sounded by four quarter bells hung next to Big Ben in the Elizabeth Tower belfry in the Palace of Westminster. These are:[2]

Quarter bell Pitch Weight Diameter
First G4 1.1t 1.1m
Second F4 1.3t 1.2m
Third E4 1.7t 1.4m
Fourth B3 4.0t 1.8m

The quarters consist of five changes, combinations of the four pitches provided by these quarter bells (G4, F4, E4, B3) in the key E major. This generates five unique changes as follows:[3]: 95  [4]

  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

Each of the five changes is played as three crotchets (quarter note) and a minim (half note) and are always played in the sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. This sequence of five changes is used twice every hour as follows:

First quarter, change 1.
Half hour, changes 2 and 3.
Third quarter, changes 4, 5 and 1
The full hour, changes 2, 3, 4 and 5 followed by one strike for each hour past 12 midnight or 12 noon struck on the Great Bell known as Big Ben in E3.

Note that the number of changes used matches the number of quarter hours passed.

Because the five changes are used twice, and in the same sequence, the mechanism that trips the hammers needs to be programmed with only five changes instead of ten, reducing its complexity.

Both the third quarter and the full hour require the fourth quarter bell, B3, to be rung twice in quick succession (changes 4,5,1 and 2,3,4,5); too quick for the hammer to draw back for the second strike. To address this, the fourth quarter bell is equipped with two hammers on opposite sides and becomes, effectively, a fifth bell for the mechanism to play.

The first and third quarters finish on the dominant, B, while the half and full hours finish on the tonic, E, producing the satisfying musical effect that has contributed to the popularity of the chimes.

Note that the following sounds have been recreated as electronic, MIDI files and do not necessarily represent the actual sounds of the bells and that the pitch of the Big Ben clip is closer to F than E in modern concert pitch. An actual recording may be heard in the summary section above.

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\fermata \bar "||" \clef bass \time 4/4 e,1^"Big Ben" | e1| e1 \bar "|."| }

Words associated with the melody[edit]

The prayer inscribed on a plaque in the Big Ben clock room reads:[5]

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.


The Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster, the namesake of the chime
The Church of St Mary the Great, Cambridge for which the chime was written

It was written in 1793 for a new clock in Great St Mary's, the University Church in Cambridge. There is some doubt over exactly who composed it: Joseph Jowett, Regius Professor of Civil Law, was given the job, but he was probably assisted by either 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,[6] 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.[7][1]: 8–9  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 familiar with the Great St Mary's chime) for the new clock at the Palace of Westminster, where the bell Big Ben hangs. From there its fame spread. It is now one of the most commonly used chimes for striking clocks.[8]

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, Massachusetts. 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.[9]

Other uses[edit]

  • The symphony, A London Symphony, by Ralph Vaughan Williams incorporates the half hour changes, 2 and 3, near the beginning of the work and the first three changes of the hour, 2, 3 and 4, near the end.
  • The theme music by Ronnie Hazlehurst for the satirical TV series Yes Minister (1980–1984) and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister (1986–1988), about a British politician and his interactions with the civil servants who nominally serve him, is largely based on the chimes (though with a longer duration for the first note of each quarter, which arguably makes the derivation less obvious). When asked in an interview about its Westminster influence, Hazlehurst replied, "That's all it is. It's the easiest thing I've ever done."[10]
  • A piece Carillon de Westminster based on the chimes was written for organ by the French composer and organist Louis Vierne.
  • The song "11 O'Clock Tick Tock", 1980, by rock band U2 incorporates the Third Quarter chime as a guitar harmonic.
  • The song "Clock Strikes Ten" by Cheap Trick incorporates a guitar solo based on changes 4 and 5.
  • The song 'サイダー by 'Akai Ko-en, 2014, incorporates the Third Quarter chime.
  • A composition based on the chimes was written in the ladrang form for central Javanese gamelan. It is named variously as ladrang Wesminster, ladrang Wesmister, ladrang Wèsmèster, etc.
  • The football chant known as "Pompey" by local association football fans in Portsmouth, England, is a variation of the Westminster Quarters. "Pompey" is the nickname of the city of Portsmouth and the "Pompey Chimes" chant originated from the nearby chiming clock of Portsmouth Guildhall built in 1890.[11]
  • At Yankee Stadium, the chimes are played whenever a member of the New York Yankees scores a run, a tradition that began at their original ballpark (the beginning of "Workaholic" by 2 Unlimited).[12]
  • Indonesian train stations play the chimes as a sign of train departures and arrivals.[13] Upon arrival, the chimes are looped continuously until departure, which may last up to 15 minutes.
  • Most schools in Japan play the chimes to signal the end and beginning of classes.[14][15][16][17]
  • At the close of the Warner Bros. cartoons Now Hear This (1963), the first four notes of the Westminster Quarters play to bring on the four elements of the abstract "WB" lettering, then as the words "A Warner Bros. CartOOn" scroll appear, Big Ben chimes, and then as the letters OO in Cartoon separate from the words, a bicycle horn is heard squeaking three times. Big Ben gives one more chime as the words finish appearing on the screen before the fadeout.[citation needed]
  • The chime can be heard in the 6 AM victory screens of several Five Nights at Freddy's games, specifically in games 1,[18] 2,[19] 3[20] and Ultimate Custom Night.[21]


  1. ^ a b Starmer, William Wooding (1907). "Chimes" (PDF). Proceedings of the Musical Association. 34: 7–10. doi:10.1093/jrma/34.1.1.
  2. ^ UK Parliament (20 May 2022). "The Great Bell and the quarter bells". Retrieved 20 May 2022.
  3. ^ Starmer, William Wooding (19 April 1910). "Continental Chimes and Chime Tunes" (PDF). Proceedings of the Musical Association. 36 (1): 93–107. doi:10.1093/jrma/36.1.93.
  4. ^ "Westminster Chimes". Musical Times and Singing Class Circular. 8 (190): 350. 1 December 1858. JSTOR 3369957.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Society of Cambridge Youths. "The Cambridge Chimes". Archived from the original on 30 July 2018.
  7. ^ Claimed for example by Harrison, Daniel (October 2000). "Tolling Time". Music Theory Online. 6 (4). Note 16. Note that Harrison’s note 16 in turn cites Starmer (1907), in footnote 6; so this ultimately traces back to Amp’s account, as quoted by Raven, as quoted by Starmer.
  8. ^ "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.
  9. ^ "History". trinity-williamsport.diocpa.org. Retrieved 26 February 2019.
  10. ^ "BBC New Talent: Advice for new TV composers". BBC. Retrieved 2 September 2006.
  11. ^ Rowlands, Steve (4 June 2018). "Ring A Ding Ding…: …and The Pompey Chimes". Portsmouth Field Gunners Association. Retrieved 29 September 2021.
  12. ^ Pilkington, Ed (19 September 2008). "New York Yankees say goodbye to cathedral of baseball". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  13. ^ Widiarini (17 February 2017). "Yang Kadang Terlupa dari Stasiun Terbesar di Semarang" [Sometimes forgotten from the biggest station in Semarang]. detikTravel (in Indonesian). Retrieved 16 June 2019.
  14. ^ ja:ウェストミンスターの鐘#日本での使用
  15. ^ wikt:キーンコーンカーンコーン
  16. ^ "ウェストミンスターの鐘 学校のチャイムの曲名と歌詞".
  17. ^ "『チャイム(ちゃいむ)』の意味と定義(全文) - 辞書辞典無料検索JLogos".
  18. ^ FNAF | Night 5 Complete (No Commentary), retrieved 4 January 2022
  19. ^ Five Nights at Freddy's 2 Full playthrough (Nights 1-6) All Nights + No Deaths (No Commentary) (OLD), retrieved 4 January 2022
  20. ^ Five Nights at Freddy's 3 Full playthrough Nights 1-6 ,Extras, + No Deaths (No Commentary) (OLD), retrieved 4 January 2022
  21. ^ Ultimate Custom Night || 50/20 Mode Complete - No Death Coin, No Power-Ups, retrieved 4 January 2022

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