Tag Archives: orchestral culture

Viola Jokes

The informant is a 20-year-old friend from Westport, Connecticut, who plays the violin. He told me about viola jokes, which are silly, baseless jokes that strings players make about violists. He learned these from hearing other people in his orchestra, including his conductor, make these jokes. I asked him for an example of one of these jokes.


“How do you stop a violin from being stolen? You store it in a viola case.”


The concept of viola jokes was amusing to me, because they don’t seem to actually be based on anything true about viola players, but they are so widespread that they even have their own Wikipedia page. Based on my own knowledge of string instruments, violas do seem to be the odd ones out, as they use their own clef, the alto clef, which is not used by any other instrument in a classical orchestra. However, there is nothing about violas that actually suggests their inferiority as compared to other instruments, so these jokes seem to be an example of an invented other-ness that knits the rest of the group together in their identity as strings players. Without context, the jokes would seem offensive to viola players, but those who understand the jokes know that it is actually a fake out-group identity that would tie them closer to the group; in other words, knowing that the jokes are not actually making fun of violists allows the violists being made fun of, and others who understand the joke, to participate in string-instrument or orchestral culture.

For more viola jokes, see The Grand Encyclopedia of Viola Jokes by David Johnstone, found online at https://web.archive.org/web/20140824203638/http://www.j-music.es/FileUpload/articulos/gen026-Gran_Encyclopedia_viola_jokes-j-m.pdf.


Trombone Player Joke

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student who was enrolled in ANTH 333 during a prior semester, was eager to participate in my folklore collection. She shared some folklore with me that she has collected throughout her childhood and her time at USC. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant shared a joke told to her by her father, a professional musician.


Informant: My dad is a musician, and he has a lot of musician jokes. Basically he told me that, and I wouldn’t have gotten it, but basically he told me that like trombone players are apparently like the butt of every joke because apparently they’re like useless. So, one of the jokes he um told me is: What’s the difference between a rattlesnake in the desert and a trombone player?

Interviewer: What is the difference between a rattlesnake in the desert and a trombone player?

Informant: The rattlesnake was on his way to a gig.

Interviewer: That’s really funny. So, do musicians say this to trombone players? Is it like a form of hazing?

Informant: It kind of is. I don’t know if my dad tells this to trombone players, but definitely among his musician friends they go back and forth with stupid trombone player jokes. I just had no idea that trombone players were the butt of the music community’s jokes, but apparently they are.

Informant’s relationship to this item: While the informant did not understand the joke initially, once her father explained that trombone players are often teased by other members of the music community, she was able to recognize the humor in her father’s joke. This is not a joke that the informant regularly shares with people who are not members of the music community, nor is it a joke that her father typically shares with trombone players.

Interpretation: The joke shared by the informant definitely qualifies as an inside-joke, or a joke that only a specific community of people would be likely to understand. Not only is the joke specific to the music community, who are the only people who understand that trombone players are regularly made fun of, but it is also not typically performed for trombone players. Additionally, the joke qualifies as a joke riddle, in which the listener is prompted to figure out the correct and humorous response to the posed question based on context clues. Finally, the joke qualifies as blason populaire, a term used to describe any kind of folklore (not just jokes) about a stereotypical identity or group. This specific joke is making fun of the fact that it is typically difficult for trombone players to find paid work.


How do you get a violist to play with vibrato?

Context: This joke was told to over the phone by an older relative of mine

Background: This relative has been teaching music for 15+ years at a small liberal arts college.

Q: How do you get a violist to play with vibrato?
A: You write the word ‘Solo’ above the notes

This joke plays on the idea that Violists are very timid, and generally try to avoid solos.