Music for the Silly

A detail from John Stump’s “Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz”

Humans are toolmakers.  They also make music.  This can be taken to absurd extremes.  Given sufficient time and will, you can try making music out of almost anything.  That doesn’t mean it won’t turn out weird. But you know me.  I like the arts at the outer ends of the spectrum, the best and the worst.  The stuff in the middle I leave to middle managers.  Here are some fine impulses that have spun out of control.


Human voices have two registers, a “chest voice” for lower notes and a “head voice” up above.  Unless you train to close it, there’s a gap in pitches between the two.  The original purpose of forcing the voice to go back and forth at high volume was to allow guys in the Alps to shout between mountains.  Tarzan’s yell in the movies is dedicated to this correct original purpose.

How it got turned to an attempt at artistic expression, as it has in a variety of cultures, is beyond me.  The best yodelers can make it sound somewhat musical, but nobody can prevent it from also sounding a bit daft.

Household Items Used as Instruments

This insanity includes playing spoons to make intricate rhythmic accompaniment for folk music.  No matter how well it’s done, it still sounds all clickety.  In the early days of glass manufacturing, someone noticed that running a wet finger around the rim of a leaded-crystal glass produces a tone.  Bigger and smaller glasses make lower and higher notes, and you can “tune” them by adding liquid.  Benjamin Franklin mounted different-sized glass disks on a treadle and dubbed it an armonica. Wolfie Mozart, another aficionado of musical oddity, wrote pieces for it.  Then there’s using a bow to play things besides what bows were made to play.  Ok, I’ll grant that playing an electric guitar with a bow can sound cool, but what level of boredom produced the idea of playing the back of a saw held between the knees?  Sure, you can play hymns and arias on a musical saw, but it will always sound like something better suited to cartoon soundtracks.

Instruments vs. Toys

The world has a wide variety of musical instruments.  Some are exotic, like bagpipes or gamelan.  Proper cultural context matters, and there are “real” instruments and toys.  Kazoos were not designed for producing serious music, nor were slide whistles, nose flutes, or wiener whistles.  However, all have been used by musicians with a taste for the bizarre.

A vuvuzela is what happens when you take a noisemaker blown at birthday parties or New Year’s Eve, super-size it, and tell South Africans it’s a symbol of national pride.  If you fill a stadium full of plastic trumpet farters blasting away, you can’t even hear the bloody World Cup!

This source of annoyance is the intended use, though some can’t resist trying to make them more tuneful.

And Speaking of “Trumpets”…

There once was a man named Joseph Pujol, an artiste active from 1887-1914.  When he was a boy he accidentally discovered he had an unusual level of voluntary control of the muscles of his anal sphincter.  He could take in, and shove out liquids and air with varied intensity and duration, almost as if he had another mouth. So he developed a stage act in which he used his ability to fart with finesse.

Le Pétomane (the fartomaniac) blew out candles, and imitated the sounds of barnyard animals, cannons, and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.  For his grand finale, he inserted a rubber tube back there and played “La Marseillaise” on an ocarina, thus creating two levels of musical inappropriateness simultaneously!  His audiences included the Prince of Wales and Sigmund Freud.  Edison made a film in 1900 that appears to be a try at recording his unique talent, but the current whereabouts of the wax cylinder is unknown.  Only recordings made by others unsuccessfully attempting to imitate this, uh, skill have survived.


Filed under humor, Music

33 responses to “Music for the Silly

  1. That’s the best laugh I’ve had in a loooong time! The vuvuzela was just awful, but Mr. Pujol, well, I don’t know exactly what to say!

    Fantastic post!

  2. You gotta love all the different tools and ways in which we make this thing we call music.

  3. Robin

    You Left out ” STOMP ”
    In College we actually had listening tests on these ~ Bbbeeeezzzaarr ~ attempts to turn noise into music. if it wasn’t for the “Verbage ” in Rap
    I would have to put it right up there with the rest of this stuff. Still ~
    I could have done without the “Toot- Suite ” of Pujols Sphincter

    • I considered mentioning Stomp, but after all it is a pretty famous show and I wanted to deal with more obscure stuff. It would be included in the Household Items section. Garbage can lids on yer feet, I mean COME ON… (Glad to have you here, Robin.)

  4. There is music and there is music. When my older offspring were little, I banned anyone from giving them toy drums or xylophones (or whatever they were called).
    Totally with you on those vuvuzelas. I hope they are never introduced to my beloved Australian Rules Football (NOT to be confused with rugby).

  5. You can never tell what will capture the fancy of people. I come from the land of pet rocks, hula hoops and silly putty, so I’m not immune. We also have more yodelers than anywhere.

    Hey! Two “Robins” in a row. It must be Spring.

  6. Yuck! I’m glad I wasn’t a turn of the century French person.

  7. Great post..informative too 🙂 Loved the kazoo performance!! That is certainly a different level of performance..very clever.
    Couldn’t listen to more than 10 seconds of the vuvuzelas…and was somehow glad the wax cylinder of Le Petomane has been lost… 🙂

    • I was a dedicated archivist and restorer of film sound for 14 years, and a recording engineer before that. Considering the thousands of a-holes I’ve encountered that couldn’t carry a tune, finding one that COULD would be refreshing. Where can that record be? The answer my friend, is blowin’ in…

  8. lifewith4cats

    That guy who farts? I cant even think of a response. You have found many peciliar instruments here indeed. But I am a fan of very diverse music. Your yodeling mention made me think of Mongolian throat singing. I own an album of it, the whole album sounds like it is sung by popeye the sailer man. But there is one song on the album that I love because it sounds like I imagine wide open mongolian spaces might look like with prancing horses playing. Does that sound weird? Here the link to the song. (hope thats ok?)

  9. How funny! I especially liked reliving my childhood efforts to imitate the Tarzan yell.

  10. I was completely taken off guard by that farting guy. Like, no way.

    Things like that make me realize how unsurprising it really is that the internet is so full of some of the nastiest content in the world. Hearing about that guy made me think of a much earlier version of a very nasty series of internet videos, that I won’t mention specifically, starring a young woman who performs similar tasks. People are just weird.

    • Pujol was a unique physical specimen. In a way he was attempting to cross over into legitimate stage from the much-older freak show tradition. When WWI took a heavy toll on his family, he went back to his original profession as a baker.

  11. Hi Mikey, this was interesting …and I have to say, only recently I saw a group of young teenagers play awesome music using just trash cans…yup…the clean ones ofcourse 😉
    But it was I think a mixture of trashcans and stomping…presented well it can sound good…but not for too long na…but it is a talent nonetheless!
    I’d much rather listen to Andrea Bochelli or Ruyuchi Sakamoto….ahh now that is blissful music for the soul. Google these greats and enjoy 🙂
    Plus i wonder when I can see thee through thy cloak 🙂 (you know what i mean)
    Much Love,

  12. Ha ha, the vuvuzela concert was hilarious.

  13. Beans, beans
    Good for the heart
    The more you eat
    The more you fart

    The more you fart
    The better you feel
    So eat beans
    With every meal

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