The Westminster Quarters is the most common name for a clock chime melody used by a set of four 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, from its use at the Palace of Westminster, or the Cambridge Quarters 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, F♯4 and G♯4.
The notes used are:
- G♯4, F♯4, E4, B3
- E4, G♯4, F♯4, B3
- E4, F♯4, G♯4, E4
- G♯4, E4, F♯4, B3
- B3, F♯4, G♯4, 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:
|Full hour (3 o'clock example):
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), 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. Note that the pitch of the Big Ben clip is closer to F than E in modern concert pitch.
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. 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 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 one of the most commonly used chimes for striking clocks.
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.
- Many Football team fans use the supporter chant which were inspired by the Westminster Chimes.
- The chime is also used in some doorbells and school bells. Most schools in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea play the chimes to signal the end and beginning of classes.
- Some electronic civil defense sirens in the United States manufactured by Federal Signal Corporation such as the Electronic Outdoor Warning Siren (EOWS), Modulator, and the Directional Speaker Array (DSA) sound off the chimes on a daily basis. It is also used in Japan and the Philippines by some loudspeakers installed in public areas as a time signal.
- On the Japanese game show Panel Quiz Attack 25, which airs on TV Asahi, the chimes signal the end of the game when there are any boxes left on the board.
- In Indonesia, train stations play the chimes as a sign of train departure and arrival. 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.
- Louis Vierne's organ piece Carillon de Westminster is a set of variations on one of the five chimes.
- Cyrillus Kreek's Requiem (1927) uses the chimes in the Introitus.
- The rock band U2 incorporated the Third Quarter chime as a guitar harmonic in the song "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" in 1980.
- The Pikmin series uses the sound to signify the onset of sunset in any given day, encouraging the player to gather their Pikmin.
- 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.
- A variation of the chime is played by the Los Angeles Lakers NBA basketball team at home games whenever the Lakers make a three-point shot.
- For the satirical TV series Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, 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."
- It is used in the first three installments of the indie horror series Five Nights At Freddy’s to signal the end of a night. It can be heard on a grandfather clock in the fourth installment as ambience.
- Mosques and churches in Indonesia regularly play the chimes via grandfather clocks.
The prayer inscribed on a plaque in the Big Ben clock room reads:
- 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.