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Westminster Quarters: Wikis


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Westminster-chimes.mid: a midi file playing Westminster Quarters striking six o'clock

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 Chimes from its place of origin, the church of St Mary the Great, Cambridge.



The melody consists of five different permutations of four pitches in the key of E major. The pitches are B0, E1, F 1 and G 1.

The permutations are:

  1. g 4, f 4, e4, b3
  2. e4, g 4, f 4, b3
  3. e4, f 4, g 4, e4
  4. g 4, e4, f 4, b3
  5. b3, f 4, g 4, e4

played as three crotchets and a dotted minim. A different sequence of these permutations is played at each quarter-hour: one set at the first quarter, two sets at the half, and so forth, as follows:

First quarter: (1)
Westminster Quarter 1.svg
Half-hour: (2) (3)
Westminster Quarter 2.svg
Third quarter: (4) (5) (1)
Westminster Quarter 3.svg
Full hour: (2) (3) (4) (5)
Westminster Quarter 4.svg
Big Ben Westminster Big Ben.svg

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, a cycle of five permutations, (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), is repeated twice during 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.

Problems listening to this file? See media help.


This chime is traditionally, though unsubstantiatedly, 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.[1] 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.

The chime is also used in some doorbells and school bells. Most Japanese and Taiwanese schools play the chimes to signal the end and beginning of periods.


According to tradition, the tune has words: "O Lord our God/Be Thou our guide/That by thy help/No foot may slide." An additional rendering of the lyrics 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 sung at the end of a Brownie meeting in the UK. "Oh Lord our God/Thy children call/Grant us Thy peace/And bless us all". According to an inscription in the clockroom of Big Ben, the lyrics are "All through this hour/Lord, be my guide/And by Thy power/No foot shall slide."

Musical references

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. But his tune is slightly different from the original.
  • A London Symphony, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, quotes the quarters at the beginning and end of the piece (according to the quotation, only a quarter of an hour has passed, although the symphony is considerably longer).
  • 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 on offensive plays resulting in the Yankees scoring 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!!"
  • Claude Gagnon quotes the quarters in his composition for guitar trio Alice au pays des merveilles (1995). Not only is the tune quoted, but it is used as the basis for composition.
  • The Cheap Trick song "Clock Strikes Ten" references the quarters in the introduction.
  • The Norwegian band Turbonegro uses the melody in a part of their song "The Age of Pamparius".
  • Fans of both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur football clubs used this tune in their songs about Emmanuel Adebayor prior to his move to Manchester City; the difference being that one praised him and the other was somewhat racist.
  • 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.
  • Japanese schools from elementary level to high school use the chimes to indicate the start and finish of classes.
  • 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.


  1. ^ Claimed for example by Harrison, "Tolling Time", note 16 in Music Theory Online 6/4, October 2000.

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