Tag Archives: viola jokes

A Viola Joke

Context:

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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Analysis:

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 Joke

Main Text:

“Why does a viola make for better firewood than a violin? Because it burns longer.”

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 typically woodwinds, brass, and percussionists who tell it to him, not strings.

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.

This particular joke is identifying the differences between the violin and the viola. While they look relatively similar, a standard violin has the strings E, A, D, G, and a viola has the strings A, D, G, C. In addition to having a lower string, the viola is slightly larger than the violin, which is why it has a warmer sound and deeper register. The joke is explaining that both instruments are worthless (and should be used as firewood) but because the viola is physically larger, at least it’ll take longer to burn.

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.