Tag Archives: orchestral culture

A Viola Joke


My informant, AW, is my 15-year-old brother. He has played violin since he was four, and played in many youth orchestras throughout his life. In many orchestras, the violists are considered the black sheep of the group and many jokes are made at their expense, especially by violinists, their rivals. This piece was collected during an informal interview at home when I asked my brother about rituals or practices within orchestras. I refer to myself as SW in the text.


Main Text:

AW: “Violists are the worst, scum of the earth.”

SW: “Know any good viola jokes?”

AW: “Did you hear about the violist who played in tune? Yeah me neither.”


Informant analysis:

SW: “Do violists participate in making viola jokes, or are they supposed to be annoyed by viola jokes?”

AW: “In general… the general consensus is that… well ok there can be both. If you’re a cool violist, you participate. If you are… a violist, you get annoyed by it… They’re kinda like the middle child of the entire orchestra. Violin section is the younger child who gets everything they want and deserve. Or not deserve – everything they want and don’t deserve, and gets away with everything. Cellists are the older brothers that have to take up the entire… like the older sibling that have to take up the entire like… weight of the orchestra. And then violists are… there, I guess.”

SW: “But how do you learn you’re supposed to make fun of violists?”

AW: “Um… by… honestly by seeing other people make fun of violists. Nobody really actually thinks that violas are bad, they just are, because everyone says they are.”



Viola jokes are one of the most common types of humor to spread around orchestras, especially youth orchestras. My brother and I are both violinists, so we have a special love of viola jokes since we are the ones who are supposed to “hate” our sworn rivals, the violists. Many violists started as violinists, and they are generally seen as “less good” violinists. The joke itself works on this principle – while violinists are expected to always be in tune, no one can ever find a violist who plays in tune. The entire orchestra will recognize viola jokes as a common musician humor format, and it often turns into a round of rapid fire viola jokes to see who has the best one. As AW stated, it is less about anybody thinking people who play viola are actually bad musicians. More likely, it is because the viola is an awkward instrument that never gets the melody, and is therefore an easy target.

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.