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Let us examine the stylistic incongruity that occurs in Spinal Tap’s “Heavy Duty” (from their 1976 LP Bent for the Rent). [17]

Example 1 provides sixteen measures from the song’s chorus: the style is that of mid-Seventies heavy-metal rock. The final occurrence of this chorus is followed immediately by the music shown in Example 2.

Clearly we perceive the insertion of a classical-style minuet — in this instance the well-known minuet from Boccherini’s String Quintet in E major — into a heavy-metal song as incongruous, not to mention the additional incongruity of the “power chords” that accompany the melody, which is itself played by the lead guitar. These incongruities are the key to the humor here: in a tune that aspires to “heavy-duty-osity,” an instrumental interlude in the classical style is desperately out of place. This example might be viewed as a musical analogue to Schopenhauer’s horse story and confirms that incongruity can produce specifically musical humor.
Here the incongruity resides between two very different, even antithetical, musical styles. “Heavy Duty,” then, depends for its humorous effect on an obvious stylistic incongruity. Consider, on the other hand, “Cups and Cakes,” a single produced in 1965 when Spinal Tap still called themselves the Thamesmen. The humorous effect of “Cups and Cakes” is achieved somewhat differently from that of “Heavy Duty.” Here, the entire number is in a single style: the so-called “British-invasion” style, prevalent in popular music between 1963 and 1967. [18] Unlike “Heavy Duty,” there are no passages in “Cups and Cakes” that produce incongruity by radical stylistic juxtaposition. In fact, most of the song’s musical characteristics are congruent with the norms of the British-invasion style. In order to understand the role played by stylistic incongruity in “Cups and Cakes,” we need to first explore in some detail the ways in which the tune matches the style.
Let us turn to the music. The song begins with a five-measure introduction employing piano, string quartet, and trumpet, with electric bass entering at the end of the fifth measure to lead into the first verse. One notices immediately the use of trumpet and string quartet, instruments more often associated with “high-brow” music, and their pseudo-Baroque scoring. The first and second verses are shown in Example 3.

The text of the first verse is sung solo to the accompaniment of pseudo-Baroque piano, along with electric bass, and tambourine. A cello line in the eighth measure of that verse leads into the second verse, which is sung by a second solo voice to the same accompaniment, augmented now by harpsichord.

At the bridge (see Example 4), the voice, piano, and electric bass are joined by the string quartet, and the tambourine is replaced by snare drum and tom-toms (played to sound like tympani). This is followed by an instrumental interlude featuring the trumpet, accompanied by piano, electric bass, and tambourine. The harmonic progression in this five-measure interlude is identical to that of the introduction until the fifth measure, where a modulation up one whole step, from C major to D major, occurs through the introduction of the new dominant sonority. The final verse, though transposed to D, is identical to the second verse up to its seventh measure. The harmony in measures 8-10 of the last verse progresses as follows:

D: vi - bVI | iv - bVII | I ||

The instrumentation is identical to the first verse with the addition of string quartet.
As Susan McClary and Rob Walser have pointed out, the music of one’s own culture often seems completely transparent and requires very little mediation to achieve its effect. [19] While the listener who knows the British-invasion style will surely recognize it in “Cups and Cakes,” describing how one can identify such a style often poses a number of difficulties. [20] The ability of listeners to identify a particular style results from what will be termed a specific “stylistic competency.” At a low level of competency one can merely identify the style; at a higher level of competency, one can acutely identify the significant incongruities from the style within a single work. [21]
Stylistic competencies are frequently tacit: a listener is able to perceive a stylistic incongruity — in fact, the incongruity may seem obvious — but is often unable to articulate the perception in a systematic or technical way. While the stylistic incongruity that occurs in “Heavy Duty” requires that the listener possess a low-level competency in two styles — one needs to know only that the juxtaposed styles are Seventies heavy metal and classical-period art music, not that there are any deviations within those styles — the fullest appreciation of the humor in “Cups and Cakes” depends on a rather advanced British-invasion stylistic competency. This claim is supported by the fact that so many features of “Cups and Cakes” are congruent within the style.

One way of identifying the ways in which “Cups and Cakes” is congruent with the British-invasion style is to compare it with genuine tunes from the style. Figure 1 enumerates some of the correspondences between “Cups and Cakes” and a number of other songs in the British-invasion style. [22] The introduction to “Cups and Cakes” uses string quartet and trumpet. “Classical-sounding” instruments are typical in mid-Sixties British-invasion music, and one need look no further than the Beatles’ “Yesterday” or “Eleanor Rigby” for strings and their “Penny Lane” for trumpet. The eighth-note rhythm of the strings in the introduction to “Cups and Cakes” is especially reminiscent of the eighth-note strings in “Eleanor Rigby,” and the trumpet solo of “Penny Lane” might easily have been the model for the one here. [23]
The harmonic root-progression is common enough in this style; the use of inversions lends a certain “learned” aspect to the movement, further reinforcing the pseudo-Baroque aspects of the arrangement. The melody features the characteristic eighth-note syncopation found in many pop styles. The lyrics are silly, but so are the ones to “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” or “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits. [24] Both those numbers also feature the heavily accented voice of Peter Noone, making him the likely model for the overdone accent in “Cups and Cakes.”
In many ways, however, “Cups and Cakes” is most reminiscent of Peter and Gordon’s “Sunday for Tea.” [25] To begin with, both sets of lyrics deal with tea time and use instruments commonly associated with high-brow music. The five-measure introduction to “Sunday for Tea,” for instance, is played by harpsichord solo in a pseudo-Baroque style. The first and second verses are each eight measures in length, but are in a pop-folk style, with vocal duet accompanied by strummed acoustic guitars and acoustic bass (see Example 5).

The eighth measure of the first verse features an interjection from the harpsichord, and the second verse adds a xylophone, which does not constitute a strong reference to high art, to the accompaniment. The eight-bar bridge introduces a pop-style tambourine to the ensemble, while the twelve-measure third verse incorporates a now “chord-comping” harpsichord throughout. An eight-measure instrumental interlude follows with the music from the second verse scored for traditional piano trio only.
The remainder of the song consists of a repetition of the bridge, followed by verse three; concluding with the introduction, which is used as a codetta. Thus one may note the use of “classical music” instrumentation throughout the song, with the instrumental interlude for piano trio and the introduction and codetta for harpsichord the most obvious references to high-brow music. Considering the correspondences enumerated here, both in comparison with the British-invasion style and with an original British-invasion tune like “Sunday for Tea,” it is not at all clear how incongruity could be at work creating humor in “Cups and Cakes.”
The British philosopher-aesthetician Roger Scruton, in considering Schopenhauer’s theory of incongruity, cites caricature as a counterexample. In discussing a caricature of the former British prime minister, Scruton writes

The caricature amuses, not because it does not fit Mrs. Thatcher, but rather because it does fit her, all too well. It is true that it must also contain an exaggeration: but the exaggeration is amusing because it draws attention to some feature of her. If one wishes to describe the humor of a caricature in terms of incongruity it must be added that it is an incongruity which illustrates a deeper congruity between an object and itself. [26]

Later, Scruton adds that “. . . satire at least possesses, when successful, the quality of accuracy.” [27] Scruton’s remarks further refine the incongruity model by introducing the notion that a dialectical tension exists between congruity and incongruity, and his observations on satire and caricature shed important light on the questions that arise in comparing the Spinal Tap number with one by Peter and Gordon, as well as with the British-invasion style generally. “Cups and Cakes” does fit the style and this accounts for the correspondences which are found in Figure 1 (the number of correspondences could be increased quite easily). But, to follow Scruton, does “Cups and Cakes” contain some kind of exaggeration?
Let us again consider “Sunday for Tea.” The lyrics poke fun at conservative and affluent British high society. The use of harpsichord and piano trio is motivated by the use of these instruments in drawing rooms and gardens of the elite (or, at least it is rooted in the popular association of these instruments with aristocracy). This interaction of lyric and instrumentation produces a kind of gentle irony, and the tune is surely meant tongue-in-cheek. The music hall element is not far off in this number, and the music-hall style played a prominent role in Peter and Gordon’s previous single “Lady Godiva,” which made use of tenor banjo and tuba. [28] The irony of “Sunday for Tea” amounts to a criticism of high society — albeit a not-so-direct one — and one can find many songs from the same period that took a more direct aim at their targets. [29]
When the Thamesmen/Spinal Tap adopt this style there are indeed exaggerations. Trumpet and string quartet do not really interact with the lyrics, which are even plainer and sillier than those of “Sunday for Tea.” Further, how do we make sense of the tympani-like drumming in the bridge, especially when the lyrics are “milk and sugar/bread and jam/yes please sir and thank you ma’am/here I am”? There is no gentle irony or underlying social commentary here. While “Cups and Cakes” abounds with features typical of the style, certain ones are exaggerated or are combined with others in ways that produce an exaggeration within the style.
These exaggerations, to follow Scruton, draw attention to particular and real features in the style — features that are, nonetheless, ripe for a humorous treatment. None of this produces an amused response, however, unless the listener can tell the difference between the real thing and the exaggeration; it is the listener’s stylistic competency that permits this crucial discrimination. Without the ability to make such a judgment (no matter how tacitly or overtly this is done), “Cups and Cakes” could pass for a legitimate song in the style (though probably a below-average one). While one knows that in context of the film “Cups and Cakes” is supposed to be funny, the listener highly competent in British-invasion music can detect the stylistic incongruities even when the song is heard in isolation. [30]
One might also posit that there is a kind of “threshold region” within a listener’s stylistic competency. An incongruity that is easily perceived falls below this threshold, one that is too difficult to perceive falls above it. When an incongruity falls into the area where it challenges the stylistic competency, without boring it or confusing it — when it balances on this threshold — then the greatest amused response is aroused; the key to eliciting the amused response would seem to depend on just the right kind of dialectical tension between congruity and incongruity. In short, what is obvious is not as funny as what requires a little more thought; or as our two Spinal Tap guitarists say during a philosophical moment in the film, There’s a fine line between stupid and . . . clever. With regard to the satire of Spinal Tap, the movie’s most effective numbers are those that nearly pass for authentic ones; the stylistic exaggerations offer a challenge to the listener’s powers of detection.

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[17] . None of the three Spinal Tap numbers under consideration in the present study occurs in its entirety in the film. References are always to the complete versions that appear on the soundtrack LP. All examples are transcribed and arranged by the author.
[18] . For more about the British invasion, see Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Rolling Stone Press/Prentice-Hall, 1986), 277-89; and Charlie Gillett, The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 2nd. ed. (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 261-84. “British-invasion” is an American term; the British refer to the same style as “beat music.”
[19] . Susan McClary and Rob Walser. “Start Making Sense! Musicology Wrestles With Rock,” in Frith and Goodwin, On Record, 277-92.
[20] . In fact, I am always surprised, when I ask pop musicians to identify the possible targets of this gag, how many different responses I get.
[21] . The term “stylistic competency” is used in a way similar to Robert Hatten’s usage. See Robert Hatten, “Toward a Semiotic Model of Style in Music: Epistemological and Methodological Bases,” (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1982).
[22] . These are, of course, only suggestions and everyone will have his or her own set of associations. Please note that the chart includes correspondences in instrumentation, an area that is generally thought to fall under the auspices of arranging or production, and which is, to follow Meyer, non-syntactic. The aspect of production is crucial to the perception of the style in this instance, however, and could be thought of as one of Meyer’s secondary parameters. See Meyer, “Toward a Theory of Style,” 41.
[23] . It is the use of a trumpet in a British-invasion style tune that is most significant. The trumpet melodies in both “Penny Lane” and “Cups and Cakes” imitate “classical music,” but that is as far as the resemblance goes. In the documentary film The Compleat Beatles (videotape, Delilah Films Inc., 1982), Beatles producer and arranger George Martin states that Paul McCartney heard the piccolo trumpet in a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto (no. 2) and wanted to make use the instrument in music the Beatles were recording at that time. For an account of the composition of the trumpet part in “Penny Lane,” see George Martin with Jeremy Hornsby, All You Need is Ears (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), 201-2. I cannot resist pointing out that the trumpet solo also uses a particular riff that strongly resembles one in the theme music to the 1980’s TV series “Dynasty.”
[24] . Both of these songs are found on the compilation Herman’s Hermits XX, Their Greatest Hits (Abkco, AB 4227, 1972).
[25] . “Sunday for Tea” is found on the Peter and Gordon compilation cassette A World Without Love (Capitol Records, Inc., 4XL-9288, 1985).
[26] . Roger Scruton, “Laughter,” reprinted in Morreall, Laughter and Humor, 161.
[27] . Scruton, “Laughter,” 162.
[28] . Peter and Gordon’s “Lady Godiva” may also be found on A World Without Love, cited above.
[29] . The Kinks’ “A Well Respected Man” (1965), the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” (1966), and “Penny Lane” (1967) are just three examples of many that can be cited.
[30] . This is confirmed to a certain degree by the fact that in the film one hears only the very end of the tune; on the soundtrack LP, however, one finds the entire song. Most of the features of “Cups and Cakes” discussed here are not obvious from the short excerpt of the tune one hears in the film itself.

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