Humour in Music - the strange land where music and humour mix

Music is a serious business - isn't it? Not always, and this article sets out to explore music's lighter side. It's hard to talk about music unless you can hear it, so we've illustrated this article with lots of examples selected from the vast number of videos on YouTube. A few of these examples are included within the main text so you can hear them as you read, but we've added even more examples towards the bottom of the page. As always we welcome feedback, so if you think we've missed some great examples of humour in music then drop us an email and share your thoughts.

Jesters Entertaining Even hundreds of years ago, Music and Humour have always overlapped to a degree. Take court jesters or minstrels for example - their job was to entertain people with songs, and maybe a range of jokes, tricks and dances. A lot of music aims to make people feel happy, so it just takes one more step to enter the world of humour. There is the bawdy tavern song, with a catchy tune and humour generally arising from the lyrics. Today there are modern equivalents of court jesters and tavern songs, but we will start by looking more closely at humour in Classical Music.

The Funny side of Classical Music

Cartoon Conductor with a Big Nose Many of Haydn's Symphonies are good-humoured, though he took this one step further when he composed his "Surprise" Symphony (No.94) in 1791. The surprise in the title is a very loud chord played in the slow movement (at 0:35s), which is traditionally very gentle and quiet. You can imagine that Haydn's audience might be relaxed at this point in the concert or even nodding off to sleep, but then the unexpected loud chord would jolt them awake with a fright. Mozart wrote a piece called A Musical Joke which UK TV viewers may recognise as the theme from the show-jumping programme "The Horse of the Year Show". The music bounces along merrily though sometimes clumsily, wandering off in various directions before periodically coming back the the main theme. It keeps up this playful momentum until it finishes suddenly with its final chords full of wrong notes.

piano key fingers The humour in the previous examples arises from the unexpected. Another type of humour from music comes through imitation. Imitation is often used in programmatic music, i.e. music which tells a story or describes a scene in the listeners mind. There are many examples of composers imitating nature by including things like bird-song and events like storms in their music. One of the earliest examples is Vivaldi in his "Four Seasons". In the first movement of Vivaldi's Autumn he depicts peasants dancing (from 0:00), drinking lots of wine and then falling asleep (from 1:08). Even Beethoven, whom we imagine to be the most serious of composers, has similar moments in his 6th (Pastoral) Symphony. He uses bird calls in the 2nd movement, describes a big storm in the 4th movement, and in the 3rd movement the composer makes gentle fun of a village band (at 0:55s), where the band's timing seems to be off and the bassoon can only play a limited number of notes. The humour in this music arises from the characterisation.

motorcycle - image courtesy Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles or Classic Motorcycle Archive During the time of Beethoven, Symphonies and other similarly constructed works began to include a "scherzo" movement instead of a "minuet". "Scherzo" in Italian means "joke" and this style of movement is playful in character, adopting the role of "light relief" between more serious movements. The 3rd movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony is just one example of a Scherzo, but many scherzos by Beethoven and other composers have humorous elements. Here is the playful scherzo from Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op.26 which is then followed by a funeral march! The film composer John Williams has frequently written Scherzo style tracks for his film scores. Here is the track from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" called Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra.

In addition to the "scherzo" another form of music associated with humour is of course the "Humoresque". A number of composers have written humoresques, though the most famous is Dvorak who wrote a set of 8 humoresques for the piano. Of these No.7 is very well-known and here is Itzhak Perlman and Yo-yo Ma playing an arrangement of Dvorak's Humoresque No.7 for violin, cello and orchestra. Another early example of musical imitation for humorous effect is Mendelssohn's music for "A Midsummer Night's Dream". His music for Shakespeare's comedy is most famous for its Wedding March, but the musical imitation can be heard in the composer's Overture which introduces the play. In the story the character of Bottom is turned into a Donkey, and Mendelssohn imitates donkey breying noises (from 3:13 to 3:32) to add humour to his music.

Opera's Funny Bone

Opera Singer in Valkyrie costume Let's take a brief look at Opera and Theatre Music which both have a homourous side. During the 18th century there were 2 recognised styles of opera: comic opera and serious (dramatic) opera . In Italy where this differentiation first occurred the styles were called opera buffa and opera seria. Comic Opera wasn't necessarily "comic" but it was light-hearted and usually had a happy ending, and might include some elements of comedy. Comic Opera was quickly adopted and developed by composers across Europe. In 19th century France, Jacques Offenbach wrote many "Operettas" including his "Tales of Hoffmann" with its famously fun-loving Can-Can dance. In Austria, composers such as Johann Strauss II (the "Waltz King") wrote operettas such as "Die Fledermaus" (The Bat), and here's its well-known orchestral overture, while in England Gilbert and Sullivan created their own style of operettas such as "Pirates of Penzance" (here's the Pirate King from a humorous production). The Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were generally satirical but light-hearted, and Sullivan (the composer of the team) would often parody the music of serious classical composers. Even serious forms of opera can have a few minutes of "light relief".

Opera Singer These lighter forms of opera or operettas are not so far removed from (or maybe have evolved into) various forms of musical theatre, such as music hall, burlesque, vaudeville, variety shows, pantomime and the minstrel shows. Stage musicals in turn have spawned the world of film musicals, many of which have a fun aspect. Just to pick two almost random examples of funny singers and songs: 1) Here is Flanders and Swann singing The Hippopotamus Song (made famous by opera and theatre singing Ian Wallace); 2) The Python Team have included lots of funny (ranging from complete nonsense to satirical) songs in their their TV episodes, live shows and movies e.g. Knights of the Round Table from the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (and later used on the stage musical "Spamalot"). Music Hall Songs often involved some comedy e.g. "Boiled Beef and Carrots" with its Cockney Rhyming Slang.

A popular style of Duet Song is the kind sung as in the form of an argument, more of a "Duel" than a "Duet", and there are some well-known examples of these. Here is the song Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better) from Irving Berlin's musical "Annie Get Your Gun" as sung in the film version by Betty Hutton and Howard Keel. Also frequently sung as a duet is the song Let's Call the Whole Thing Off written by the Gershwin brothers for the film "Shall We Dance" starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This is the one with lines like "You Say Either and I Say Either" (with words being pronunced two different ways). A little more recently there is the Pogues' Christmas Song called Fairytale of New York with its Irish humour.

For the most though, the humour in opera or songs derives from the words or the story rather than the music itself. So let us return to instrumental music which doesn't have the benefit of words.

Classical Music - the dark side, parody and irony

Don Quixote statue The Romantic and Modern eras of classical music have produced many fine examples of humour in music, sometimes of a sharper variety. Mahler often used humourous elements in his music, including pastiche, parody and musical irony. His 1st Symphony for example uses the melody of "Frere Jacques" in the 3rd movement in a minor key as a funeral march, which at one point (2:40) breaks out into Jewish Kletzmer music. Mahler said that a Symphony must "be like the world and contain everything" and clearly he felt it should include humour too. Richard Strauss was a master of programmatic music, many of his works following a detailed narrative. He based his tone poem Don Quixote on the stories of Cervantes, and included the episode where the Don attacks windmills believing them to be giants. His sidekick "Sancho Panza" is a bit dim and Strauss musically describes the way he never stops talking (from 3:30 and the Don can't get a word in until he loses his temper at 5:05). In another episode they meet a pair of monks, and Strauss uses two bassoons in a musical portrait of them chattering in a monastic way.

In his autobiographical work Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) Strauss gets revenge on his critics by making fun of them in music (from 0:00 in part 2/8). One great example by Richard Strauss is his music for Till Eulenspiegel (the name of a prackster). The opening of this tone poem builds up to a great big climax and then deflates expectations with a little joke on the clarinet (1:02) - a perfect example of a musical anti-climax. Till Eulenspiegel's joke theme is used at various points during the piece, and equates to the character "sticking his tongue out" at authority or playing tricks on people. Another great anti-climax is Dohnanyi's Variations on a Nursery Rhyme. This has an introduction which also builds up in suspenseful anticipation before the pianist plays "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" (3:03).

Soldiers Marching Shostakovich used some darker humour in his music. Under the Soviet Regime he had to produce music which met with the approval of the authorities. But he rebelled in little ways, even with his most conformist works. For example even though his 5th Symphony was pitched to the authorities as an "apology" to get him back into favour after his "modernistic" 4th Symphony, he still couldn't resist a little rebellion. His tempo indications for the ending of his 5th Symphony (at 2:00) seem to make the music painfully slow. Some conductors have felt this was an error and it should end at a heroic tempo, but Shostakovich's intention was that it should be played slowly to undermine the heroic conclusion with irony. The 1st movement of his 7th Symphony seems to be a pastiche of what is expected from a Soviet composer during the war years (though written in Leningrad when the city was under siege during WWII). The snare drum (from 6:50 and continuing to 6:40 in part 2/9) repeats the same 2-bar rhythm 175 times while the rest of the orchestra seems to play the same simple tune over and over again, but somehow Shostakovich turns this banal idea into something special. The composer is also noted for encoding hidden messages in his music, in part as a protest to the way he was constrained artistically by the Soviet Authorities.

Classical Music - the light side, whimsy and wit

A number of French composers have shown a whimsical side to their music. Erik Satie was something of an eccentric. His music was quite forward-looking in the sense that the style seems commonplace now, but at the time of its composition it must have seemed quite odd. He often chose odd humourous titles for his compositions - the English translations of some of these titles being Bureaucratic sonatina, Three pear-shaped pieces (Satie's response to criticism that his pieces lacked form!), "Unpleasant views", "Cold Pieces", "Three Melodies which Make you Flee" or even "Flabby Preludes (for a dog)". He also included strange comments within the scores.

cartoon elephant Saint-Saens also displayed a sense of humour in several of his works including for example his Carnival of the Animals. The Elephant is a deep slow waltz played on a double bass, and you can just imagine an elephant dancing slowly to this, while Tortoises is another slow piece. Carnival of the Animals also has "Characters with Long Ears" and Pianists (as though they were a kind of animal) and Fossils with the Xylophone's sound seeming like bones hitting together. Interestingly Saint-Saens only allowed the more serious "The Swan" to be published in his lifetime, because he feared that the frivolous nature of the other pieces might harm his reputation. Some of Francis Poulenc's earlier music also seems quite whimsical (e.g. his Concert Champêtre for Harpsichord and Orchestra). It seems to skip almost at random from one idea to another, and those ideas are often just very simple tunes quite unlike the serious melodies we might expect from classical composers.

a swan Each variation in Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations" portray's one of Elgar's friends. Though all of these portrayals are full of friendship and love, there is a degree of humour in the depictions. In two of the fastest and loudest variations: Variation 4 - W.M.B. is William Meath Baker (at 5:26) who according to Elgar "expressed himself somewhat energetically", while in "Variation 7 - Troyte" is Arthur Troyte Griffiths (at 9:17) whose music depicts his enthusiastic incompetence on the piano and the day he and Elgar got caught in a thunderstorm. American composer Charles Ives's Symphony No 2 finishes with a fine example of a musical joke (listen from 8:30). The 5th movement uses various quotations including "Camptown Races" and "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" (familiar from the march "American Patrol") and some bugle calls ending on a sudden discord. Also from an American composer is George Gershwin's Symphonic Poem An American in Paris later made into a film with Gene Kelly. The music is described by the composer himself as a humorous piece. It is a fun with a mix of Gershwin's Jazz and Blues idioms, starting with the hustle and bustle of Paris complete with traffic horns.

A Typewriter In the UK a style of music evolved which was called "Light Music", mainly in the early 20th century and later driven in part by the needs of radio broadcasting. This "Light Music" (whose leading composer was Eric Coates) wasn't always laugh-out-loud funny, but it certainly was much less serious than traditional "classical music". Later in the US Leroy Anderson's brand of light music included the fun pieces Sleigh Ride (with horse clopping sounds) and The Typewriter (with clickety typewriter sound). Charles Williams' Devil's Galop (used as the theme for the show "Dick Barton: Special Agent") is a great pastiche of over-the-top action music, often used today to refer back to those innocent days. The Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin has lots of fun in The Carmen Ballet based on Georges Bizet's music for Carmen. The music has lots of fun moments, many featuring percussion, but one of the most interesting is when he plays the "Toreador's Song" (starting at 18:51) without the theme (19:41). The music is so familiar that you can hear it even when it is not playing!

Interpreting Music in a Funny Way

cartoon mouse pianist A lot of fun can be had by interpreting existing pieces of music in a funny way. Many comedians have performed routines to music. One funny example is this routine where Charlie Chaplin is a barber who shaves someone to the music of Brahms' Hungarian Dance No.5 in the film "The Great Dictator". Then there is this brilliant example where Sid Caesar and Nanette Fabray mime having an argument to the 1st movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. These are both serious pieces of music but the humour arises from the unexpected interpretations. Many examples of this kind of idea come from animated cartoons, such as Tom and Jerry in their famous "Cat Concerto" where Tom tries to play Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 while Jerry is determined to spoil the performance. This piece of music is so closely associated with comedy interpretations that in the film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" Donald Duck and Daffy Duck performed a piano duel routine to the same music.

cartoon monkey violinist There are many more examples of animations performing to existing pieces of music, such as in the film Fantasia where Ostriches and Hippos dance daintily to Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours. Of course we mustn't neglect Mickey Mouse and Friends who did this wonderful version of Rossini's William Tell Overture. Cartoons have also been known to parody other cartoons. In response to Disney's "Fantasia" Warner Brothers created the Merrie Melodies A Corny Concerto featuring many of their favourite characters such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. The composer Carl Stalling carefully arranged the music using two of Johann Strauss' Waltzes: "Tales from the Vienna Woods" and "The Blue Danube". Usually cartoons are created first and the music written afterwards, and Carl Stalling was an expert in writing funny (and very clever) music for various series of cartoons, all with musical names such as "Merrie Melodies", "Looney Tunes" and "Silly Symphonies".

Another fun thing you can do with music is take a well-known song and replace the existing lyrics with something funny. Elmer Fudd did just this when he sang Kill the Wabbit to the theme of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyrie" while searching for Bugs Bunny. The Simpsons & South Park are animations with a more modern outlook. They often use music in an amusing way, though in most cases this takes the form of songs (here are some songs from The Simpsons and South Park) rather than instrumental music. This section has all been about performing actions to existing music. Film and Television composers usually do the opposite, they take existing actions or footage and add music to it. Sometimes they are looking to create fun commentary on the film by using a particular tune or style - e.g. a wildlife video might use a Tango to describe animal mating rituals drawing a parallel with a human dance ritual, or they may use circus music to accompany a boardroom meeting leaving the listener to draw the obvious conclusion.

Humour in Television and Film Music

film projector Many films and television programmes set out to be funny, with lots of visual or verbal gags. The music for these often aims to emphasise the comedy but this can be done in many ways. The music for cartoons or slapstick action will sometimes employ deliberate "Mickey Mousing" techniques to follow the action very closely - e.g. by Tom & Jerry's composer Scott Bradley or Bugs Bunny's previously mentioned Carl Stalling. For the movie short in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" called Somethin's Cookin', composer Alan Silvestri cleverly recreates this style. Slightly more subtle musical techniques can involve parody to score certain scenes, such as the puppet film "Team America" scored by Harry Gregson-Williams. Here's the opening scene featuring thriller action with middle-eastern music for the terrorists, heroic music when Team America come to the rescue, idyllic music for the "real" France and comedy French music in the puppet show within a puppet show. Gregson-Williams with John Powell also composed music for The Chicken Run which parodies the music of Elmer Bernstein's Great Escape and other movie styles.

cowboy riding into the sunset Moving to live action programmes, another way of scoring light comedy shows is using light quirky music. A good example of this technique is the TV series "Desparate Housewives" with its quirky theme music by Danny Elfman and bouncy pizzicato incidental music by Steve Jablonsky (e.g. this compilation) which gives the series a "once upon a time" feel and helps to give a feel for hidden motivations of the characters. Or consider the music for "Home Alone" composed by John Williams. In addition to some Christmas Songs and the main comedy theme The House (with jingle bell sounds), this has some comedy threat music for the villainous burglars (at 0:00), slapstick music when they receive many painful knocks, and fast action music (another scherzo) as the family rush to the airport. Ennio Morricone imitated sounds in a number of his film scores. He used percussion to imitate gun ricochet sounds (best heard from 0:40) in "A Fistful of Dollars" and a coyote call was the inspiration for his main theme in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. However in Two Mules for Sister Sarah he fully realised the comic potential of the movie's title, setting the tone for the whole film by imitating mule breying sounds (from 0:31 similar to Mendelssohn's Donkey noises). Morricone's theme then breaks out into a mock serene religious chorale (1:05) to emphasise that Sister Sarah (Shirley Maclean) is a nun. Or is she?

CD compact disk Quite a lot of film composers have fun when it comes to naming the tracks on their soundtrack albums. In PI Clint Mansell named some of his tracks after mathematical formulae with PI and his final track in "Black Swan" is called "A Swan Song (for Nina)". In "Sherlock Holmes" Hans Zimmer names his tracks after funny events or words used in the film, such as "Discombobulate", "He's Killed The Dog Again" amd "I Never Woke Up in Handcuffs Before". In "Iron Man 2" two of John Debney's tracks are called "Mayhem in Monaco" and even better "Jailhouse Talk", while Jerry Goldsmith's "Basic Instinct" has a track called "Blondage & Death". "Battlestar Sonatica" is one of Bear McCreary's tracks for the Battlestar Gallactica TV series, and he has given other tracks similar names. And we have already mentioned John Williams' track Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade".

fighter plane A rare use of thematic ideas comes from a kind of musical pun. A composer can use a word or concept which translates into music e.g. The Theme from Morse by Barrington Pheloung uses Morse Code, as does John Williams in the music for "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" when E.T. phones home (e.g. at 0:42). It has also been noted that the basis of the theme for Ron Goodwin's 633 Squadron consists of six short notes followed by two longer notes. Initially we wondered that this might just be coincidence, but it has now been confirmed that the title "633" really was the composers's inspiration for the rhythm! These pun examples are not exactly funny, but they are clever and surprising.

Experimental Music - are they pulling our legs?

cartoon pianist The 20th Century has seen Classical or Art Music move in strange new directions, often bold, surreal and sometimes just plain weird. Experimental Music looks at new and different ways of creating music, and sometimes in doing so it stretches the boundaries of what we think of as music. There are several examples of Experiental Music which some people would say involve humour. John Cage might have been making a serious point with his well-known work 4'33" which is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, but it is amusing to think of audiences paying to attend a concert, and then sitting attentively through a performance of the work. Some experimental composers have explored particular set-ups where it is hard to predict the musical outcome, and sometimes that outcome can be pleasantly surprising. Steve Reich's Pendulum Music is a work where the set-up involves suspending and swinging microphones near speakers to create feedback effects. The output is certainly interesting and possibly even inspiring, but it is also amusing to see these pieces of equipment used in such an unexpected way. Steve Reich himself said "If it's done right, it's kind of funny".

Experimental composers may use all sorts of weird objects to create music, though one favourite instrument is the "prepared piano". A piano is prepared by adding objects into the mechanical parts of the instrument such as on or between the strings to alter the sound produced - e.g. some cardboard may dampen the sound, and a metal object like a spoon may result in a jangly sound. Depending on how the instrument is set up and the music being played this can create a humorous effect, when you hear a strange percussion noise in the middle of some conventional-sounding music. Artists often find inspiration for their work in other art forms, but there are examples where other Arts seem to overstep the mark and encroach on the domain of Music. Some may have thought that the organisers of the "Turner Prize" were playing a joke with the award in 2010. The Prize is organised by the Tate Art Gallery to recognise works by visual artists, but in 2010 many people thought the Gallery had taken modernism a step too far when the award went to a work by Susan Phillipsz called Lowlands which consists solely of sounds, the artist singing a traditional Scottish ballad.

The Russian composer Alfred Schnittke has used humour in his music, with moments of gross irony similar to the works of Shastakovich. Gyorgy Ligeti has also at times used humour in his works. Ligeti's single Opera called "Le Grand Macabre" including an abridged concert version called "Mysteries of the Macabre" has theatrical moments of dark humour. The composer Mauricio Kagel's works also exhibit moments of surreal humour. Among Kagel's works is a film called "Ludwig van" referring to Beethoven. The film is quite weird in places with cross-references between what is happening on the screen and the soundtrack composed of course by Kagel himself. The soundtrack consists of a variety of "de-constructions" of Beethoven's music, arranged for unusual instrument combinations, edited in strange ways and sometimes referring to events, musical instruments or sheet music seen within the film itself. The film can be found in its entirety at this youtube link Mauricio Kagel - Ludwig Van.

Humour in Popular Music

cartoon folk singers When it comes to popular music, artists have many opportunities to have fun. Some might adopt a funny name for their group, create funny album covers or weird videos to go with their singles, their appearance might be funny or strange with outragious costumes or hair, or their music and lyrics might have a fun element whether overt or with hidden meanings. Glam Rock represents a particular style which emerged in the UK and reached its peak in the 1970s. Although Glam Rock artists sang many serious songs, there was often a camp ironic element to their on-stage personas which spread into their songs, such as Mud's Tiger Feet, Sweet's Ballroom Blitz and Block Buster!, while some of Slade's songs were delivered with a wry smile and a wink (e.g. Merry Christmas Everybody). On the other side of the Atlantic Chuck Berry released a song full of witty suggestive lyrics in My Ding-A-Ling, while in the UK Ian Dury and the Blockheads sang even more suggestive lyrics including their major hit Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Lyrics with suggestive or hidden lyrics are nothing new. Back in the 1930s Cab Calloway sang Minnie The Moocher with lots of references to drugs. The song is humorous more because of its audience participation, starting with "Hi-De-Hi-De-Hi-De-Hi" and getting increasing faster and harder until the audience fails to repeat the phrase, invariably resulting in fits of laughter. Cab Calloway also sang this decades later in The Blues Brothers movie, a film which had lots of fun with blues music.

girl band In the 80s the group "Madness" represented all that was fun in the UK music scene, with many of their songs having a bouncy ska beat and quirky chord progressions. The group were often called by the knickname "The Nutty Boys" a term which seemed to describe the band's persona, and their most successful singles included House of Fun and Baggy Trousers. The East of London has often been the source of humorous songs, seemingly emerging from the Londoners' sense of humour and Cockney Rhyming Slang. Though born in Scotland Lonnie Donegan grew up in Essex and sang songs such as My Old Man's a Dustman, while many years later Chas & Dave released a string of songs with their own inimitable mix of pub sing-song humour and a sprinkling of Cockney Rhyming Slang - for example the song Rabbit means "Talk Incessantly". The Scaffold's song Lily the Pink was essentially a funny folk song. In the US the "Village People" sprung from gay culture, wore gay fantasy costumes and sang songs such as In the Navy and Y.M.C.A., while the bad Sparks sang This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us with the Mael brothers' weird stage characters.

cartoon rappers A number of artists have used a device called a vocoder to electronically alter the vocals in their songs, and sometimes this has been to humorous effect. Related devices have been used to make robotic speach or to re-pitch voices in an amusing way often to create a gender-bending impression. Voice effects are behind the "Crazy Frog" and its versions of Axel F and other funny songs. There are of course vocal effects which don't require electronics (except perhaps a microphone). Scat is a form of singing which arose in the jazz age, for example some of the syllables that Cab Calloway used in "Minnie the Moocher" mentioned above. Scat allowed jazz singers using a limited range of nonsense syllables to create a rhythmic melody in a way which mirrors instrumental solos. This technique made a comeback when Scatman John sang the Scatman song in 1994 (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop), and more recently the comedy duo "The Mighty Boosh" have used a similar technique which they've called Crimp (using nonsense lyrics). Beat-Boxing where an artist uses his or her voice to create a percussion track, is another voice technique which can stretch into comedic territory. Even earlier than Jazz, Ragtime was a very popular instrumental style. Many pianists played ragtime fast in a humorous way, though Ragtime's foremost composer Scott Joplin strove to promote the serious side of Ragtime. Here is Winifred Atwell playing George Botsford's The Black And White Rag in a fun yet respectful way, and here is Claude Debussy playing his own fun ragtime-inspired Golliwog's Cakewalk from Children's Corner as recorded on a piano roll.

punk bassist Popular music has also been a source of material for various comedians, such as impersonator acts verging on the realm of parody. The worst excesses of Rock culture were of course humorously parodied in the film "This is Spinal Tap" (with songs such as The Majesty Of Rock and Stonehenge). We've mentioned above some songs with suggestive lyrics. The censorship of lyrics can also create a sense of fun in some cases. In terms of self-censorship Snoop Dogg sings I Just Wanna Make You Sweat (rather than "Wet") and the cleaner version of Monty Python's Always Look on the Bright Side of Life includes the phrase "Life's a Piece of Spit". Some commedians set up a lyric where you expect a rhyming naughty word but then change it unexpectedly (The Two Ronnies) or intentionally use a censors "beeps" to humorous effect. Similarly various funny sound effects can be added to video footage to make it funnier, though we're thinking more about slapstick action rather than the overused technique of adding canned laughter.

Social Aspects of Humour from Music

audience in formal dress The World of Classical Music, because of its "highbrow" seriousness and perceived snobbishness, has itself become a target of jokes. The whole idea of the male members of an orchestra wearing "penguin suits" of bow tie and tails, and the associated rituals and customs at performances seems to be ripe for ridicule. There seems to be an unwritten set of rules about when and how much applause to give soloists, leader and conductor and it can be embarrassing when someone gets it wrong. Many comedians have poked fun at this situation, and interestingly if something goes wrong at a concert it can sometimes "break the ice" of this most formal of occasions and change the audience perception of the entertainment. The Proms Concerts in London's Royal Albert Hall have traditionally involved a small element of lightheartedness where the "promenaders" poke fun at the on-stage rituals. However these fun elements have now themselves become rituals - ritualised or formalised humour (e.g. shouting "heave" when the piano is being moved). In this video Bill Bailey talks about the snobbery of classical music and the ritualised fun at the Last Night of the Proms, though it should be noted that the composers and performers frequently encourage the fun (e.g. this performance of Malcolm Arnold's Grand, Grand Overture which includes parts for vacuum cleaners, a floor polisher (played by David Attenborough) and rifles. This year for the first time there will be a "Comedy Prom" - scheduled for Saturday 13th August 2011.

sharks One source of humour in music emerges from a shared recognition. Many popular songs are known by millions (or even billions) of people, and several pieces of classical or film music are very familiar from their frequent use on television commercials and other programmes. Because of this, the music can be used as a shorthand way of creating a funny reference point - e.g. playing the Jaws tune while showing a goldfish in a bowl. Steven Spielberg and John Williams used the same joke in the film 1941 when the Jaws theme accompanied a submarine. Staying with John Williams, the audience all got the joke when Simon Cowell made his entrance on the 2011 "Britain's Got Talent" to the strains of the Superman Theme (at 3:35). Likewise the familiarity of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody (and its iconic video) means that everyone understands the comparison when others (such as The Muppets) perform a parody.

The Ill-Conceived PDQ Bach Anthology - album cover There is a fictional character called P.D.Q. Bach who is supposed to be a son of Johann Sebastian Bach. P.D.Q. Bach is the comic invention of Peter Schickele, and the character has given rise to all sorts of musical humour. Other participants have joined in the fun - many articles have been written about the fictional composer, strange instruments have been invented, and wildly improbable stories have been told about his life and influences. There is now a large catalogue of musical works which have been "discovered" as P.D.Q. Bach compositions, often with lots of word-play in their titles and musical humour in the form and style of the compositions, and concerts have been held where the composer's works are played for laughs and satirical fun. Here is a sketch from PDQ Bach Live and, if you want to hear more, a search on Amazon will reveal several pages of albums of the composer's works! The image alongside shows the cover of the album "The Ill-Conceived PDQ Bach Anthology" which is available at and

Musical Comedians and Funny Musicians

clown with small fiddle A number of comedians have successfully combined classical or popular music with comedy routines, and some of the humour derives from the "seriousness" of classical music. The prime example of this must be Victor Borge who mixed music with a liberal dose of comedy (e.g. What Does a Conductor Do?). He would frequently spoil the performance of his guest musicians in a fit of pretend envy. In the Marx Brothers films in the midst of the mad-cap comedy, Harpo would typically play the Harp and Chico would play the Piano, usually seriously but with some humour thrown in for good measure. Here is an extended routine from A Day at the Races where Chico plays the piano (initially playing Lizst's Hungarian Rhapsody No.2), then Harpo wrecks the instrument (performing Rachmaninov's C#-minor prelude) before picking up the piano frame and playing it like a harp.

man wearing a cymbal for a hat Billy Connolly is one of several stand-up comedians to have successfully mixed music and comedy in their shows (e.g. How to Write County and Western Music). Bill Bailey is a talented musician who has made a career out of combining humour and music with his touring show called Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra (usually accompanied by Anne Dudley as conductor). Igudesman and Joo also have a lot of fun with classical music (e.g. the Rachmaninov had Big Hands routine (also playing the composer's C#-minor prelude). Morcambe and Wise took the mickey out of Andre Previn in several of their shows. Morcambe's playing of the Grieg Piano Concerto was funny because he played "all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order". Another comedian to get considerable mileage from playing the wrong notes was Les Dawson, who mixed bad piano playing (e.g. The Entertainer & My Favourite Things) with dead-pan jokes about his mother-in-law. And here is comedian Tim Minchin who presented the 2011 Comedy Prom playing in F major but Singing in F-sharp.

A number of comedy music entertainers can have fun with piano duets (Here's another example with Victor Borge), by playing some music while also performing a sequence of moves such as elaborately crossing hands or changing positions at the keyboard. Some pianists (or other instrumentalists) turn duets into duels where the players try to out-do each other while perhaps improvising on a well-known melody, here Piano Duel improvising on Bach's style from the film "Bach & Friends". This leads naturally to another way of having fun with music - taking a well-known piece of music and playing it in a completely different style. Often the best examples are where there is a surprising contrast between the original and the new style, e.g. play Lady Gaga's Bad Romance in the style of a Bach fugue, or a pianist playing 80s chart hits in a ragtime style. For some styles the joke is only appreciated by musicians or knowledgeable members of the audience, but everyone can understand the element of playing about with a recogniseable theme. The Chuck Berry hit song Roll Over Beethoven doesn't use Beethoven's music at all, but it suggests in a light-hearted way that classical music has been replaced by Rock and Roll.

Many comedy acts have used music in various ways, Monty Python being one of the obvious examples with several albums being released with songs collected from various shows and films.

Funny Sounds and Instruments

funny tuba player There is a type of comedy which arises not so much from music, but from the use of funny sounds (though sometimes within musical compositions). One such sound which always seems to get a laugh is a noise similar to certain body functions - think of the sound made by whoopee cushions for example. When made with the mouth these are "raspberry" sounds, and the TV show "The Two Ronnies" used this sound to comic effect in their Phantom Raspberry Blower. Brass instruments can sometimes create a similar sound particularly with low notes. Although what you hear is mostly the vibrations of air in the tubing, the method of playing brass instruments is similar to blowing a "raspberry" into the mouthpiece. Sometimes with low brass a rasping sound can become more prominent and it can seem comical. People have also connected brass mouthpieces to various odd pieces of equipment or plumbing to play them like an instrument, e.g. rubber tubing, radiators, etc.

Related to these examples, there is also a certain humour in the physicality of playing certain instruments. Whether it is just the puffing of cheeks in playing a tuba or trombone, or the odd wrap around brass instrument called the sousaphone (for example, here is a sousaphone duet), certain instruments seem comical by nature. For some reason it always seems to be the larger instruments which are the most comical - including the didgeridoo and the alpine horn. You can emphasise the size of such an instrument by having a smaller person or a child playing it.

trombonist One particular brass instrument can create an unusual sound. The Trombone can make a glissando (sliding up or down) by moving the slide while maintaining a note. This effect has been used dramatically by composers such as Ravel (towards the end of Bolero), Stravinsky (in the Rite of Spring), Bartok (in his Concerto for Orchestra) and Khatchaturian's (in his Sabre Dance). But other composers have used this effect in a humorous way, most famously in Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite (starting at 1:00 in this part 3), and in The Acrobat by John Greenwood (the young trombonist starts playing the slides at 1:50). Sometimes the effect seems comical because it is so unexpected in a brass instrument. You may have seen or heard a wooden instrument (known as a "swanee whistle" or "slide whistle") which looks something like a recorder but with a central slide. This also creates a funny sound and it was the sound of the Clangers (their speech starts at 1:25) a children's TV show about moon creatures. This instrument is higher pitched and the way it is used on the Clangers seems to follow the natural inflections of human speech, which adds to the amusement.

dog singer recording Stringed instruments such as violins can also play sliding sounds which can sound funny too in the right context. Violin bows can also be used to set off vibrations in other things. You may have also seen a saw played as a musical instrument, with the player stroking the saw using a violin bow while they bend the saw by varying amounts degrees to change the pitch of a note. This means that is always slides from one note to the next which sounds quite strange to our hears. Another type of sound which can raise a smile is certain types of creaks and groans, similar to a mix between a raspberry and a slide. Electronic samples can also be used in a humorous way. Dog barks are a favourite sound to use, but popular music have used unusual synth sounds such as the track "Popcorn" - here's the original 1969 track by Gershon Kingsley.

Of course this section wouldn't be complete without some examples where people create funny sounds using parts of the body. We've mentioned raspberry blowing and we've previously mentioned beat-boxing, but here is Victor Borges doing his sonic punctuation routine.

Humour in Music - Conclusion

In summary there is probably no such thing as music which is funny outside of its social context. But let's face it, Music and particularly Classical Music, can take itself far too seriously sometimes. So why not have some fun with it? At the risk of becoming analytical, here are some of the different types of musical humour which we've identified. These categories can overlap in many cases, and there are probably more which we haven't identified. However, it is fair to say that there are many ways of having fun with music!

  • The Unexpected - music which surprises us by defying our expectations - The Surprise, A Musical Joke, The Anti-climax
  • Imitation - a whole spectrum of imitiation from gentle Pastiche to Parody and Satire, including Irony and Sarcasm
  • Characterisation - describing a scene or a person in a musically humourous way, often using satire
  • Humour arising from musical situations and people - e.g. the seriousness of Classical Music and its rituals
  • Interpreting Music in a funny way - films, actions, dance, comedy routines, cartoons
  • A particular version of this is the Funny or Duelling Duet
  • Music Recognition - using familiar themes to comment on something in a funny way, e.g. Jaws/Shark, Superman, Cowboy, etc.
  • Musical Pun - the Morse theme
  • New lyrics - add funny lyrics to an existing (usually well-known) tune or song - e.g. "Kill the Wabbit"
  • Fun ways of Creating Music - experimenting with unusual set-ups to generate sounds, prepared pianos to make unexpected sounds, fun use of samples such as dog barks
  • Fun ways of Playing Music - speeded up or slowed down, very high or low (e.g. Mahler's Frere-Jacques and Saint-Saens' The Elephant)
  • Funny sounds - raspberries, sliding effects, using unusual samples, or (sometimes) beat-boxing
  • Strange instruments - sousaphone, kazoo, everyday objects

Examples of Humour in Music

To illustrate this article we have included a number of examples at appropriate points in above. Below we have listed these examples again and also included some more just to show the broad range of fun you can have with music. So enjoy the music, but remember to have fun!

Humour in Classical Music and Light Classical Music

Humour in Opera, Songs and Popular Music

Humour in Music for Film and Television

Humour from Interpreting Music

Having Fun with Musical Styles and Funny Duets

Mixing Comedy and Music

Having fun with Sounds and Musical Instruments