What tune does Big Ben chime? And everything else you wanted to know about the country's most famous bell

21 August 2017, 11:49

Factfile: Westminster Quarters

Did you know the tune Big Ben plays every hour was written in the 18th century?

00:54

By Lizzie Davis

Before it’s silenced for four years because of restoration work, we’re delving into the history of the most famous clock tower – and bell – in the world

First things first, did you know that Big Ben is the nickname for a bell inside the famous clock tower?

The tower itself was simply called the Clock Tower until 2012 when it was renamed Elizabeth Tower to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

What tune does Big Ben play?

The tune that Big Ben plays contains only four notes – G sharp, F sharp, E and B – and different parts of the tune are played at quarter past, half past and quarter to the hour in Westminster.

Here’s what it looks like written down:

The tune is called Westminster Quarters, but its original name was the Cambridge Quarters, because it actually comes from Cambridge and was first played in Great St Mary's Church in the centre of Cambridge.

Great St Mary's Church Cambridge

Image: iStock

It was written in 1793 for a new clock in St Mary the Great in Cambridge but it’s not clear exactly who composed it.

The job was given to one Dr Joseph Jowett but he may have been helped by Dr John Randall, a Professor of Music, or one of his pupils, William Crotch (a composer and organist).

The tune was adopted by Westminster in the mid-19th century.

When does Big Ben chime?

The longest version of the tune is only heard every hour when it is followed by the strikes for the hour.

But that version isn’t actually complete – the chime that’s heard at quarter past isn’t heard in this long version (seen here at the bottom):

Westminster Quarters

Image: bellhistorians.org.uk 

And here's an epic fantasy on the famous tune, Vierne's Carillon de Westminster, played on the organ of Winchester Cathedral by Richard McVeigh:

Vierne: Carillon de Westminster - Richard McVeigh

Vierne - Carillon de Westminster, organ of Winchester Cathedral) GoPro POV

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Where else can you hear the Westminster chimes? 

The Westminster Quarters is now the most popular tune for church bells and can be heard all over the country.

So if you’re missing the famous sound of Big Ben while its tower is being renovated, here are just a few of the places you can hear the tune: Great St Mary's Church, Cambridge – the original home of the chimes
Almost any other parish church in the UK
The Peace Tower in Ottawa, Canada
The San Francisco Ferry Building clock tower
Schools in Japan, China and Taiwan, which often use the tune as school bells to signal the beginning/end of lessons

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