Ambrose Li

The odd one out the curious case of the third quarter in many English-style chimes

(updated )

Daniel Harrison believes two qualities make clock chimes useful as what we might call sonification of the clockface “emergence”, iconically representing the number of quantized time units past the hour‍[Note 1] with the length of the melody played, and “distinctiveness”, symbolically representing each specific quantization with a different melody. Emergent chimes are always distinct, but distinct chimes are not necessarily emergent.‍[Note 2] However, some chimes, for example the well-known Westminster Quarters, emphasize both qualities.‍[Note 3]

As it turns out, William Starmer explained emergence almost a century before Harrison, although he did not use the term “emergence” he explained that chimes in the English tradition descended from ting-tang quarters, where the quarters were distinguished by having the two bells “played once for the first quarter, twice for the second, three times for the third, and four times for the fourth”,‍[Note 4] or in other words, emergence.

(It should be pointed out that Harrison only considered chimes in the English tradition.‍[Note 5] Starmer also described what he called “continental” chimes that are not emergent but possess a quality besides simple distinctiveness that makes them useful.‍[Note 6])

Looking at some of the chimes that Starmer and others documented, I would conjecture that chime tunes might have originated as a way to embellish ting-tang quarters when you have more than two bells available. The Magdalen chimes,‍[Note 7] for example, can be thought of as embellished ting-tang quarters, as can the New College chimes.‍[Note 8]

Although the Parsifal chimes are also mostly emergent,‍[Note 9] Harrison finds its third quarters “unexpected”.‍[Note 10] But the Bow version of the Whittington chimes composed by Charles Villiers Stanford in 1905 and which Starmer described as “excellent”‍[Note 11] is also mostly emergent with an “unexpected” third quarter.

It would seem that marking the third quarter with an “unexpected” tune was a fairly standard technique.

But why?

Curiously, as a Cantonese speaker, I find this technique strangely natural, because in Cantonese, “quarter to” is “ˍdap ˊgɐu” (‘on [the] nine’, meaning the minute hand is right on the “9” (ˊgɐu) that is on the clockface) and an idiom for “off topic” is “ˊgɐu ˌm ˉdap ˉbat” (‘[your] nine doesn’t follow [your] eight’). It makes perfect sense to mark ˍdap ˊgɐu with a melody that is ˊgɐu ˌm ˉdap ˉbat.

Martin Oei, a news critic based in Germany, posits that Cantonese might emerge as the Chinese language of the British Commonwealth.‍[Note 12] I’d certainly like this to come true, and the curious case of the “unexpected” third quarter that makes sense in Cantonese certainly makes Cantonese a little more British.


  1. Harrison was thinking of quarters, but for cuckoo clocks and the Unix sysline this would be the half hour, and for Starmer’s “continental” chimes this would be the half quarter.
  2. Daniel Harrison, “Tolling Time,” in Music Theory Online (2000), accessed September 10, 2021, https://​www​.mtosmt​.org/​issues/​mto​.00​.6​.4/​mto​.00​.6​.4​.harrison​.html, paragraphs 7–8.
  3. Harrison, “Tolling Time,” paragraph 16.
  4. William Wooding Starmer, “Chimes,” in Proceedings of the Musical Association (1907), https://​ia800708​.us​.archive​.org/​view​_​archive​.php​?​archive​=​/​22/​items/​crossref​-pre​-1909​-scholarly​-works/​10​.1093%252​Fjhered%252​Fos​-3​.1​.263​.zip&file​=​10​.1093%252​Fjrma%252​F34​.1​.1​.pdf, 1–24.
  5. Harrison, “Tolling Time,” paragraph 7.
  6. William Wooding Starmer, “Continental chimes and chime tunes,” in Proceedings of the Musical Association (1910), https://​ia800708​.us​.archive​.org/​view​_​archive​.php​?​archive​=​/​22/​items/​crossref​-pre​-1909​-scholarly​-works/​10​.1093%252​Fjhered%252​Fos​-3​.1​.263​.zip&file​=​10​.1093%252​Fjrma%252​F36​.1​.93​.pdf, 93–107.
  7. See Starmer, “Chimes,” 10.
  8. See Charles W. Pearce, “Occasional notes,” in Musical Times (1903), https://​ia600708​.us​.archive​.org/​view​_​archive​.php​?​archive​=​/​22/​items/​crossref​-pre​-1909​-scholarly​-works/​10​.2307%252​F903901​.zip&file​=​10​.2307%252​F904253​.pdf, 790.
  9. Harrison, “Tolling Time,” paragraph 8.
  10. Harrison, “Tolling Time,” paragraph 12.
  11. Starmer, “Chimes,” 5.
  12. Martin Oei, “全歐關閉孔子學院指日可待” [Confucius Institutes in Europe see their days numbered], October 31, 2021, https://​www​.youtube​.com/​watch​?​v​=​j​Ncybke1ka​M, 15:36–17:46.