Westminster Quarters

Westminster Quarters

The Westminster Quarters is the most common name for a melody used by a set of clock bells to strike the hour. It is also known as the Westminster Chimes, or the Cambridge Chimes from its place of origin.


The melody consists of five different permutations of four pitches, which can be played in any key. In this description, we will refer to them using the conventional key of C Major: G, C, D, and E (the Palace of Westminster chimes are in fact in the key of E). These permutations are:

# E, D, C, G
# C, E, D, G
# C, D, E, C (or sometimes C, E, D, C; in either case "malformed", as it lacks G)
# E, C, D, G
# G, D, E, C

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:

The full hour strike is followed by one strike for the number of the hour (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 (G), whilst the second and fourth quarters (the half and full hours) finish on the tonic (C). This produces the very satisfying musical effect that has contributed so much to the popularity of the chimes.


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". [Claimed for example by [http://www.societymusictheory.org/mto/issues/mto.00.6.4/mto.00.6.4.harrison.html Harrison, "Tolling Time", note 16] in Music Theory Online 6/4, October 2000.] 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 many 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".
*"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).
*This melody is also found as a variation in Brahms´ symphony nº 1.
*"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 "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", 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!!
*The Norwegian band Turbonegro uses the melody in a part of their song "The Age of Pamparius".


External links

* [http://www.gsm.cam.ac.uk The parish of St Mary the Great with St Michael, Cambridge]
* [http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a990430b.html "The Straight Dope" on the Westminster Quarters]
* [http://www.ely.anglican.org/parishes/camgsm/bells/chimes.htm Westminster Chimes-Cambridge page]
* [http://www.societymusictheory.org/mto/issues/mto.00.6.4/mto.00.6.4.harrison.html A music theory article on the Westminster Quarters and other clock chimes]
* [http://www.bhi.co.uk/hints/chimes.htm Other chimes] ; [http://www.rochester.edu/sesqui/chimes.html Rochester Quarters]

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