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What's the Song That Clock Chimes Play?

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Readers Meg, Wayne, and Rajiv all wrote in to ask about the tune that clock chimes typically play. What’s it called? Where did it come from? How’d it get so popular? Here’s the story.

In 1793, a new clock was installed at St Mary the Great, the University Church of the University of Cambridge. Rev. Dr. Joseph Jowett, the Regius Professor of Civil Law, was asked to compose a chime. With the help of Dr. John Randall, a professor of music, and an undergraduate student named William Crotch, he wrote a melody reportedly based on a movement from George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah.

The chime was dubbed “Jowett’s Jig” by Cambridge students and later became known as “The Cambridge Chimes.” The melody was copied by the men who installed the new clock and bells at the Palace of Westminster in the mid-1800s. (The clock, bells, and sometimes even the clock tower are commonly collectively known as “Big Ben,” though the nickname originally referred to just the 13½-ton hour bell, named for engineer Benjamin Hall, who oversaw its installation). From then on, the tune has been known as “The Westminster Chimes” or “Westminster Quarters.”

Edmund Beckett Denison, who designed the movement mechanism for the Westminster clock, said of the chimes:

"The repetition of four ding dongs can give no musical pleasure. The case is different with the Cambridge and Westminster quarter chimes on four bells, and the chime at the hour is the most complete and pleasing of all. It is singular that these beautiful chimes had been heard by thousands of men scattered all over England for 70 years before anyone thought of copying them, but since they were introduced in the Great Westminster Clock, on a much larger scale and with a slight difference in the intervals, they have been copied very extensively, and are already almost as numerous as the old-fashioned ding dong quarters."

The tune's prominence at the famous clock tower led to it being copied for small and large clocks worldwide (plus doorbells and school bells), to the point where it might be the only tune people think of when clock chimes are mentioned. Daniel Harrison, a music theorist and Chairman of the Department of Music at Yale University, writes that the tune's popularity also “certainly owes much to the attractive melodic sequence, but perhaps more to sentimental associations of British imperial pomp and circumstance, reinforced by the use of [the Quarters] by the BBC World Service for many years to preface the top-of-the-hour world news report.”

Is there something that you've always wondered? Email your questions to askmatt@mentalfloss.com.

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