Westminster Quarters

The Westminster Quarters (or Westminster Chimes, from its use at the Palace of Westminster) is the name for a melody used by a set of striking clock bells to mark each quarter-hour. It is also known as the Cambridge Quarters or Cambridge Chimes from its place of origin, the church of St Mary the Great, Cambridge.[1]: 7–8  The number of chime sets matches the number of quarter hours that have passed.


The quarters portion of the melody consists of four different combinations of four distinct pitches,[2]: 95  which at Westminster is keyed to E major and the pitches are B3, E4, F4 and G4,[3] making up the five sets of notes

  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 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:
Third quarter:
Full hour (3 o'clock example):

The full hour chime consists of the fourth-quarter chime followed by one strike for the number of the hour of the hour strike (one strike for one o'clock, two strikes for two o'clock, and so on). At Westminster, the hour strike is an E3, struck by Big Ben.

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: 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,[4] 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.[5][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 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.[6]

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.[7]

Other usesEdit

  • In Indonesia, train stations play the chimes as a sign of train departure and arrival.[8] Upon arrival of a train, the chimes will be looped continuously until it departs from the station, which may last up to 10–15 minutes.
  • In Ralph Vaughan Williams' A London Symphony, the half hour (2/3) of the Westminster Quarters is heard near the beginning of the work and the first three phrases of the hour (2/3/4) near the end.
  • In Portsmouth, England, local association football fans have sung a football chant variation of the Westminster Quarters, known as the "Pompey Chimes", since 1894. "Pompey" is the nickname of the city of Portsmouth. The "Pompey Chimes" chant originated from the nearby chiming clock tower bells of Portsmouth Guildhall, which was built in 1890.[9]
  • 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).[10]
  • 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 rock band U2 incorporated the Third Quarter chime as a guitar harmonic in the song "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" in 1980.
  • The song "Clock Strikes Ten" by Cheap Trick contains a guitar solo based on sequences #4 and 5.
  • 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, the theme music was composed by Ronnie Hazlehurst and 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."[11]


The prayer inscribed on a plaque in the Big Ben clock room reads:[12]

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. ^ a b Starmer, William Wooding (1907). "Chimes" (PDF). Proceedings of the Musical Association. 34: 7–10.
  2. ^ Starmer, William Wooding (19 April 1910). "Continental Chimes and Chime Tunes" (PDF). Proceedings of the Musical Association. 36 (1): 93–107.
  3. ^ "Westminster Chimes". Musical Times and Singing Class Circular. 8: 350. 1 December 1858.
  4. ^ Society of Cambridge Youths. "The Cambridge Chimes". Archived from the original on 30 July 2018.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ "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.
  7. ^ "History". trinity-williamsport.diocpa.org. Retrieved 26 February 2019.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Rowlands, Steve. "Ring A Ding Ding…: …and The Pompey Chimes". Portsmouth Field Gunners Association. Retrieved 29 September 2021.
  10. ^ Pilkington, Ed (19 September 2008). "New York Yankees say goodbye to cathedral of baseball". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  11. ^ "BBC New Talent: Advice for new TV composers". BBC. Retrieved 2 September 2006.
  12. ^ 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 linksEdit