The Iconic Sound of Westminster Chimes

Westminster chimes - Premier Clocks

Their historical development, association with clockmaking, and cultural resonance have elevated the Westminster chime to an iconic status. The sound is easy recognizable worldwide and bring sense of nostalgia to many people.

You can hear the melody chiming from antique clocks to modern clocks. The widespread use of Westminster chimes highlight their enduring legacy.


What Is a Westminster Chime?

Westminster Chimes are a sequence of musical notes played on bells or chimes, commonly associated with the striking of the hour on clocks and church towers.


What Is the History of the Westminster Chimes?

Westminster Chimes is also known as the Cambridge Quarters, from its place of origin. The history of the Westminster chime starts in England. The melody was commissioned in 1793 by the University Church in St. Mary the Great in Cambridge, UK.

The Origin of the Westminster Chime

However, there are some discussions over how the song was composed. First of all, there is no agreement of who exactly created the melody. Originally, the job was given to Joseph Jowett who was Regius Professor of Civil Law. But it's believed that he was assisted by either John Randall, who was the Professor of Music, or William Crotch, who was his undergraduate pupil.

At the same time, it's believed that the Westminster chime melody comes from George Fredrick Handel’s aria, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth”. This is why the chime is also played in Halle, the native town of Handel, by the bells of the so-called Red Tower. But there is a doubt for this story since there are no substantiations or proof.

The Fame of the Melody

The chime spread to the United States of America in December 1875. It sounded first from the clock tower of Trinity Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. According to the church records, this chime sequence was incorporated into a tower clock mechanism by the E. Howard & Co., Boston, Massachusetts.

The widespread popularity of the Westminster chime came in 1851 when it was adopted by Edmund Beckett Denison for the new clock at the Palace of Westminster, where the bell Big Ben hangs. From there, its fame spread. Since then and until now, the chime is one of the most commonly used melodies for striking clocks.

With advancements in technology, the traditional bell and chime systems of the Westminster chimes have been adapted to electronic and digital formats. Today, both traditional way and synthesized renditions of the chimes can be found in a wide range of timekeeping devices, ensuring their continued presence in our modern lives.

How Old Is Westminster Chimes/Cambridge Chimes?

The Westminster chime is 230 years old(in 2023). The melody has been in use since the late 18th century. It was composed in 1793 for the new clock in St. Mary the Great's Church in Cambridge.

Where Do Westminster Chimes Come from?

The chime melody comes from Cambridge and first was known as Cambridge chimes. However, it has become known as the Westminster chimes because of their adoption at the Palace of Westminster in London, England.

The association of the chimes with the Palace of Westminster developed when the Great Clock was installed in the clock tower, famously known as Big Ben, in 1859. The Great Clock featured the Westminster chimes as part of its timekeeping mechanism, further solidifying their connection to the iconic landmark.


What Is a Westminster Chime Clock?

A Westminster chime clock is a type of clock that incorporates the iconic Westminster chime sound into its timekeeping mechanism. These clocks are designed to play the Westminster chimes at specific intervals to mark the time.

➤  Find your perfect Westminster Chime Clock at Premier Clocks.

A typical Westminster chime clock features a mechanical movement that drives the clock hands and triggers the chime mechanism. The chimes are usually played in a four-note sequence—G, F, E, and B—repeated in a specific pattern.


How Does a Westminster Chime Clock Work?

The clock is designed to chime at regular intervals throughout the day. Typically, it's every quarter hour. The full sequence of the Westminster chimes is played on the hour and followed by the striking of the hour. For example, at 3 o'clock, the clock would chime three sets of the quarter-hour chimes and then strike three times to indicate the hour.

Westminster chime clocks often have a selector switch or lever that allows the user to regulate the chime frequency. You can choose whether to activate the chimes continuously, only during specific hours, or to silence them entirely. This feature enables the clock owner to customize the chime settings according to their preference or the environment in which the clock is placed.

The Mechanical Movement of a Westminster Chime Clock

The clock's mechanism consists of gears, an escapement mechanism, and a pendulum to power the timekeeping. This mechanism ensures accurate timekeeping by regulating the movement of the clock hands. The mechanism is completely housed in the case of the clock.

The chime mechanism is responsible for playing the Westminster chimes. It consists of a set of chime rods, hammers, and a chime train. The chime train consists of gears that control the time and sequence of chiming.

There is a separate set of gears or levers to activate chiming. It is connected to the clock's hour and quarter-hour hands. As the clock's hands move, they engage these gears or levers, which activate the chime mechanism at the appropriate intervals.

At every quarter hour (e.g., 1/4 hour, half hour, 3/4 hour), the chime mechanism is activated. It triggers hammers to strike the chime rods and that's when the chimes are heard.

On the hour, the chime mechanism triggers the hammers producing the complete Westminster chimes sound. Following the melody, the clock's striking mechanism is activated, which strikes a set of bells or gongs to indicate the hour.

➤ Listen to Westminster Chime for Grandfather Clocks with the Mechanical Movement.


How Does a Quartz Westminster Chime Clock Work?

The clock's timekeeping mechanism is driven by a quartz crystal oscillator. The quartz crystal vibrates at a precise frequency when an electrical current is applied to it. This vibration is used to regulate the movement of the clock hands.

A quartz Westminster chime clock typically features an electronic chime circuit. This circuit generates the Westminster chimes sound using digital electronics. The chime circuit produces synthesized tones that mimic the sound of the Westminster chime. These tones are stored as digital samples in the clock's memory or generated by an integrated sound generator.

➤ Listen to Westminster Chime for Grandfather Clocks with the Quartz Movement.


How Do You Play Westminster Chimes?

The Westminster melody is quite simple to play in the most of instruments if you know the basics and the notes.



What Are the Notes of the Westminster Chimes?

Westminster chimes are composed of the four notes: G-F-E-B.

➤  Download the notes of the Westminster chimes.


What Is the Tune of the Westminster Chimes?

The tune has the name Westminster quarters, although its original name was Cambridge quarters. It follows a distinct pattern and melody:

  1. G: The first note is G, held for one beat.

  2. F: The second note is F, also held for one beat.

  3. E: The third note is E, held for one beat.

  4. B: The fourth and final note is B, held for two beats.


What Key Are Westminster Chimes in?

The bell is tuned in the F major key, the hour bell sounds notes E and E. However, the Westminster chimes are typically played in the key of G major.

Playing the Westminster chimes in G major provides a bright and uplifting sound. The first note of the chime sequence, G, serves as the tonic or the home note of the key. The subsequent notes, F, E, and B, are part of the G major scale and contribute to the overall tonality of the chimes.

However, it's worth noting that the chimes can be transposed to other keys if desired. Some musical arrangements or instruments may play the chimes in a different key to accommodate their range or the specific sound desired.


The Lyrics of the Westminster Chime

This chime actually has lyrics. It's attributed to William Crotch in 1794. The lyrics are as follows:
"Oh, Lord our God
Be thou our guide
That by thy help
No foot may slide."

These lyrics are traditionally associated with the Westminster chimes and are sometimes sung or recited along with the chime sequence. They reflect a prayerful sentiment and are often considered as a way to bring a spiritual aspect to the chiming of the bells or the playing of the chime melody.

1 Response

Alan Gray
Alan Gray

February 07, 2024

A very interesting and informative write up.

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