Tag Archives: music

The Dangers of Playing the Flute at Night

“밤에 피리를 불거나 휘파람을 불면 뱀이 나온다”

Context: I was in band during high school, and I would sometimes practice until the late hours. Whenever I played the flute at night, my mom would say this proverb.


bahm-eh piri-reur boor-guh-nah h-we-param ir boor-myun bem-ee na-own-da


At night, to play the flute or to blow a whistle a snake will come out


A snake will come out if you play the flute or whistle at night.

This is a proverb that my mom has heard growing up, and it is one that I have heard many times from her. She grew up in a more rural area of South Korea, so there were many snakes near her home. Controlling or taming snakes with a flute is quite common in many other areas of the world, which is where this proverb most likely originated. Where it seems to diverge is in the inclusion of whistling, which is surprising. The phrase seems to warn that even such a commonplace, harmless act can lead to something much more dangerous or deadly down the line.

Though this is a proverb warning against playing at night for fear of summoning a snake, she most likely said it to me to save the neighbors from the shrill notes of my flute at night.

Boots & Cats in Beat-Boxing

Main Piece:

Informant: “So, a friend of mine told me the way to start beat-boxing is to go “boots and cats” and speed it up, so: “Boots and cats and boots and cats.” But, uh, I can’t do it, but you get the idea.”


Taken from a voice memo sent in a group chat with two of my classmates in my Forms of Folklore class at USC.


I had heard this piece of folklore before and am always impressed with how surprisingly well it works. It’s perfect for the average passer-by for recreational use, and serves as a really vital gateway for those getting into professional beat-boxing. By simplifying an entire art form into a short saying, it really widens the range of people this folklore can reach. It allows outsiders to be integrated into the ‘inside’ of the industry and helps them be less self-conscious, now that they have an actual strategy. I wish my classmate would have delved into it more; it would surely make for a hilarious transcription. But, go ahead and try it! Mix it up a little, and you’ll see how fun it is!

Per Spelmann


My informant for this piece is an American of Scandinavian descent. He lived in Norway for a time during high school and learned the language while he was there. He also still keeps in contact with his host family from his time living there, and his son recently spent a year abroad there as well. he recalls this song fondly because “we used to sing [it] when our daughter was upset or crying, and it was the only thing that could get her to sleep.”


Per is a common older name in Norway, and Spelmann is a name too but it literally means “player.” In Norway, a classical or folk musician is called a spelmann. My informant learned the song living Norway in high school when he was learning folk dance, and when they were done dancing he’d “jump up and kick the hat off the stick!” To understand this song, it’s important to know that it is about a musician who had to trade his violin in order to feed his family. Here, he gets it back:

Main Piece

“Per Spellmann han hadde ei einaste ku, Per Spellmann han hadde ei einaste ku,

Per Spellmann (Player) had only one cow, (repeat)

Han bytte bort kua fekk fela igjen, han bytte bort kua fekk fela igjen,

He traded away the cow to get the fiddle back, (repeat)

Det gode, de gamle, fiolin, det fiolin, det fela mi!

The good, the old, violin, violin, that fiddle of mine, (repeat)

Per Spellmann han spelta aa fela hu laat, (repeat)

Per Spellmann played and the fiddle laughed

Saa gutterne dansa, aa jenterne graat, (repeat)

The boys danced and the girls cried.

Det gode, de gamle fiolin, det fiolin, det fela mi!”


This old Norwegian folk song tells us a great deal about the culture and beliefs of Norway’s people. Its basic concept–a man trading his violin to support his family and trading it back for his last cow–is not hard to understand, but it’s very valuable. It might seem that the man simply doesn’t love his family very much, but this isn’t the case. At first, he does trade away his instrument for them, showing how much he cares. But in the end, he trades his last possession of value–his only cow–to get his fiddle back. Although it’s sad for his family, the song shows that this culture values happiness over everything because life is nothing without it. This cultural value is still reflected in Norway’s present-day laws, which factor citizens’ happiness into other national measures of success, ensuring that the people are well taken care of.

Viola Joke

Main Text:

“What’s the difference between the first and last stand of the viola section? About half a bar.”

Background: The informant who told me the joke is a man in his early 20s. He grew up in childhood in Southern California and now attends school at the New England Conservatory of music. He is currently earning a bachelor’s degree in viola performance.

Context: The informant says these jokes mostly come up in orchestral contexts and are typically told by people who play other instruments in a well-meaning but mocking manner. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule, as shown between me and the informant, who told viola jokes back and forth for a while despite both playing it as an instrument. He recalls a particular conductor who, when waiting or stalling for time, would prompt the entire orchestra for good jokes (the majority of which, of course, were directed at the viola section). When asked why violas are such a popular target for humor, the informant speculated that it’s just an awkward instrument, and that violist have a history of being worse than violinists. My informant finds viola jokes funny, yet somewhat annoying because they’re such an overused format amongst musicians. He cannot recall where he learned this particular joke from the first time around, but it’s been retold on many occasions across several different orchestras he’s played in.

Thoughts: I would agree with the informant’s assertion that violists are more awkward—though not universally true, the types of personalities that gravitate towards playing viola tend to be more laid back and less competitive in comparison to violinists. In addition, the viola covers a lower range, and in classical music, is often given background parts where the cello or violins will get the melody. As a result, the standard musical repertoire tends to be less challenging.

The actual nature of the joke is rooted in music terminology—the first stand, seating-wise, is considered to be the leaders of the section, and they are located in the first row, directly in front of the conductor. In comparison, the back row will be further away and behind, usually directly in front of the winds and brass. A bar, or a measure, marks phrases in a piece, and each one has the same number of notes as the time signature. Essentially, this joke is saying that the back stand does not play in time with the front one, and this is evidence that violists are bad musicians.


Main Text:

“Like when you fuck up a note, you, like, clammed it. You say “That was a clam.” It’s probably for when you should know better, not sight-reading. I feel like it’s like “damn…I practiced this so much but I still clammed it.” I think it’s for when you play the wrong note, not when it’s out of tune. That’s how I use it.”

Background Info: The informant is a man in his early twenties who is minoring in violin performance at a university in Washington State. He spent his entire childhood in Long Beach, California and has performed in various orchestral groups. In addition, he also played tenor saxophone in his high school marching band and jazz band. He is currently a working gig musician.

Context: The concept of “clamming” is typically found in a musical context, usually jazz or orchestral. Clamming is a term that the informant actively uses, and has encountered in just about every orchestral setting he’s played in. It usually comes up during rehearsal when he is playing a piece he already knows (as opposed to sight-reading, where the musician plays through a piece they’ve never seen or practiced before). The clammed note is not simply out of tune—it’s a completely different note than the one written on the page. Sometimes, whole passages or phrases of music can be clammed, but it’s usually used in reference to a specific note. It’s typically said in a self-deprecating, humorous manner, but the informant notes that it sounds so natural he barely even notices it’s a unique word—he only realized it was something specific to musicians when I asked him to elaborate on what he meant when he said it.

Thoughts: The origins of the phrase are not particularly clear—some have asserted that “clamming” comes from the phrase “to clam up” or to shut down or get quiet when pressure is put on you. Other people assert that “clamming” has origins with specific orchestras or stage bands from the middle of the century, and from there the term spread to other music groups. No matter what the basis is, it seems to be a pretty widespread term, based on my informant’s geographic history. Musicians tend to have a lot of inside jargon, just like any other specialized profession or folklore, but what makes this different from music theory or Italian terminology is its informality and unofficial, yet commonly known definition. The use of “clamming” as a term offers a way for musicians to ease the tension—in a form of art so demanding of perfection, saying you clammed a note is a way to acknowledge a mistake that never should have occurred while also moving on from it. In essence, it’s the equivalent of “my bad.” Everybody shrugs and moves on, usually to start the section or piece over again without any more missed notes.