What tune does Big Ben chime? Everything to know about the country's most famous bell

14 January 2020, 15:56

By Lizzie Davis

As conservative MPs campaign for Big Ben to chime on ‘Brexit Day’, 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.

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

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:

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