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Stylistic Competencies, Musical Humor, and This is Spinal Tap [1]
by John Covach / University of North Carolina

As its title suggests, this study focuses upon matters of humor and musical style, specifically the ways in which musical numbers in the 1984 film This is Spinal Tap elicit an amused response. [2] On first pass, one might wonder how such seemingly diverse concerns as 19th-century German philosophy, recent theories of musical style, and late Sixties' rock and roll could possibly intersect: one could hardly imagine a more incongruous trio of figures than Arthur Schopenhauer, Leonard Meyer and Nigel Tufnel. I hope to demonstrate not only that there are music-analytical concerns that make for these rather strange bedfellows, but also that the notion of incongruity itself plays a pivotal role in this eclectic combination.
The present study will explore the various ways in which three Spinal Tap numbers elicit an amused response from listeners. I am primarily concerned with the ways in which humor is created through specifically musical means. In the context of the film, there are many factors at work in the Spinal Tap songs that contribute their humorous impact; each song, for instance, is accompanied by visual images (shots of the performers, audience, off-stage shots, etc.). Each song is also situated in the context of the unfolding of the story itself, and can elicit an amused response according to these relationships. In addition, each song has lyrics that elicit an amused response.
There are, for example, a number of factors creating humor in the Spinal Tap song “Big Bottom,” and perhaps the most obvious of these components is the lyrics; but another component creating humor in the tune is that all three guitarists play bass guitars — the drummer plays only low tom-toms and the keyboard player only low notes on the synthesizer — and two of the guitarists “spank” the third with the necks of their guitars at the end of the tune. The rhyme scheme that produces the many references to the derrière (which will not be quoted here) is a literary-verbal technique; the low-end instrumentation — one sees three bass guitars in the film — and the spanking of guitarist Tufnel are visual cues.
Ultimately one must consider each of these aspects, and their interaction, in accounting for the humorous effect of a song such as “Big Bottom”; humor arises in the Spinal Tap songs in multiple contexts and these contexts tend to reinforce one another. This study will, nonetheless, focus attention on those factors that create humor in the songs by purely musical means; I am concerned with examining how the musical materials themselves, thought of in their own contexts, elicit an amused response.
My discussion of the Spinal Tap songs below will rely on theories of humor that have been developed in the field of the philosophy. In order to lay the groundwork for the musical analysis and discussion that will follow, a brief overview of philosophical writings on laughter and humor will be helpful. In his book, Taking Laughter Seriously, John Morreall discusses the three basic theories of laughter. [3] The first is the “superiority theory,” which originates with Plato but is articulated most forcefully by Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes asserts that laughter results from a feeling of superiority over others — a laughing at others. [4]
A second theory is set down by Herbert Spencer and later taken up by Freud; this is the “relief theory.” Spencer asserts that our laugh is a release of nervous energy. Freud refines this theory by further classifying the types of energy that laughing releases. [5]
The third theory, found in the writing of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, is referred to as the “incongruity theory.” Our laughter is the result of some perceived incongruity between concept and object. [6] Morreall points out that laughter and humor are not synonymous and that laughter exists without humor and humor without laughter. For Morreall, each of these three theories says something about our laugh-response, but each is incomplete. [7] For the purposes of the present investigation, the third theory of laughter is most useful, primarily because it sheds considerable light on the specifically musical means at work in eliciting an amused response. [8] I will therefore concentrate throughout the following discussion on the incongruity theory.
In volume two of his The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer defines his “theory of the ludicrous” as follows:

According to my explanation, put forward in volume one, the origin of the ludicrous is always the paradoxical, and thus unexpected, subsumption of an object under a concept that is in other respects heterogeneous to it. Accordingly, the phenomenon of laughter always signifies the sudden apprehension of an incongruity between such a concept and the real object thought through it, and hence between what is abstract and what is perceptive. [9]

By way of example, Schopenhauer puts forth the following:

Of this kind is also the anecdote of the actor Unzelmann. After he had been strictly forbidden to improvise in the Berlin theatre, he had to appear on the stage on horseback. Just as he came on the stage, the horse dunged, and at this the audience were moved to laughter, but they laughed much more when Unzelmann said to the horse: “What are you doing? Don’t you know that we are forbidden to improvise?” [10]

In this anecdote, the representation of the horse dirtying the stage is viewed through the concept of theatrical improvisation; the fact that the horse’s action falls outside what is “in the script” allows for this otherwise unlikely pairing of concept and representation. We laugh when we realize the incongruity of percept and concept.
Let us say, then, that we accept the notion that perceived incongruity can give rise to an amused response. [11] The next step is to determine how this would apply to humor in music. To say that something is incongruous is to appeal to some set of norms. In the world of everyday life, we share certain ideas of what is normal, or at least, of what is common. The comic artist is especially sensitive to these commonly held notions about the world and uses them to create the incongruity that so amuses us.
In the world of music, then, one must determine what norms could give rise to incongruity and account for how these could be manipulated to humorous ends. One area of research that identifies musical norms is the study of musical style. Much of the work done by Leonard Meyer, Leonard Ratner, and Robert Gjerdingen has demonstrated that common-practice Western art music (especially the music of Viennese classicism) operates according to certain normative procedures. [12] Meyer, for example, defines style as follows:

Style is a replication of patterning, whether in human behavior or in the artifacts produced by human behavior, that results from a series of choices made within some set of constraints. [13]

Further, Meyer’s notion of style change involves a consideration of compositional choices that fall outside the constraints of the style — that is, musical-stylistic incongruities. The replication of these new choices can produce style change. [14] Obviously, these stylistic incongruities can also produce humor and the music of Peter Schickele’s fictitious P.D.Q. Bach bears this out. [15]
If there exist certain stylistic norms in art music, they are certainly also present in popular music; in fact, Theodor Adorno’s main complaint with popular music, or at least the pop of the late Thirties and early Forties, is that it is formulaic in an empty and mechanized way. [16] If pop-style norms exist, then so does the possibility of stylistic incongruity, and therefore, humor in popular music. While the notion that pop songs can be humorous may seem obvious to those who know popular music, bear in mind that our concern is with specifically musical humor; there have, of course, always been songs with funny words.

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[1] . Earlier versions of this paper were read before the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (New Orleans, 1990), Music Theory Midwest (Evanston, 1990), University of Rochester Symposium on Rock Music (1990), and the Society for Music Theory (Oakland, 1990). I would like to thank Robert Hatten, Robert Gauldin, and John Morreall for reading an earlier draft and offering many helpful suggestions.
[2] . This is Spinal Tap, Embassy Pictures, 1983, video cassette 1987 (ISBN 1-55847-103-0). All musical examples are drawn from the original soundtrack album, Spinal Tap, Polygram Records, 817-846-1-Y1, 1984.
[3] . John Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1983). A shorter overview may be found in John Morreall “A New Theory of Laughter,” reprinted in Morreall, ed., The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1987), 128-38.
[4] . Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 4-14.
[5] . Ibid., 20-37.
[6] . Ibid., 15-19.
[7] . Morreall divides his book into two parts: the first deals with laughter, the second with humor. Clearly laughter can occur without humor and humor without laughter, and Morreall argues that this distinction is a crucial one. He provides a table divided into nonhumorous and humorous laughter situations. Thus situations like solving a puzzle or problem or winning an athletic contest are instances of nonhumorous laughter, while hearing a joke, a clever insult, or a pun are humorous instances (see Taking Laughter Seriously, 1-3). After a thorough discussion of laughter, Morreall proposes the following definition: “Laughter results from a pleasant psychological shift” (39). His theory of humor, on the other hand, is based on the incongruity theory (60-84). The present study takes up the incongruity theory as a theory of humor.
[8] . The superiority and relief theories might be used to unpack the humorous effects of these songs that occur in the other dimensions that this study does not directly address. To a certain extent the superiority theory is taken up in Scruton’s notion of irony discussed below.
[9] . Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, II, E. F. J. Payne, trans. (New York: Dover, 1969), 91.
[10] . Ibid., 93.
[11] . Bearing in mind the distinction made earlier between laughter and humor, this statement does not preclude the possibility that perceived incongruity may also give rise to another response, or that an amused response may be elicited in some other way. The claim is only that an amused response may be triggered by a perceived incongruity.
[12] . Robert Gjerdingen, “The Formation and Deformation of Classic/Romantic Phrase Schemata,” Music Theory Spectrum 8 (1986): 25-43; and A Classic Turn of Phrase: Music and the Psychology of Convention (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988); Leonard Meyer, “Innovation, Choice, and the History of Music,” Critical Inquiry 9/3 (1983): 517-44; “Toward a Theory of Style,” in The Concept of Style, Berel Lang, ed. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1986), 21-71; Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989); and Leonard Ratner, Classic Music: Expression, Form, and Style (New York: Schirmer Books, 1980).
[13] . Meyer, “Toward a Theory of Style,” 21.
[14] . In his “Innovation, Choice, and the History of Music,” Meyer sets out his position as follows:
Put simply: save as a curious anomaly, a single, unique innovation, however interesting in itself, is of little import for the history of music. What is central for the history of an art is, I suggest, neither the invention of novelty or its mere use — whether in a single composition or in the oeuvre of a single composer — but its replication, however varied, within some composition community. (518)
Though this study limits itself to considerations of stylistic norms, it is certainly possible to view the congruity/incongruity dialectic in other analytical contexts.
[15] . A good example of stylistic incongruity can be found in P.D.Q. Bach’s “My Bonnie Lass She Smelleth”; in this parody of Elizabethan madrigal singing, one vocalist sings a cadenza that quickly becomes an improvisatory jazz skat-singing solo. The humor depends on the perceived incongruity between these two musical styles. See The Wurst of P.D.Q Bach, Peter Schickele (Vanguard VSD 719/20, 1071). Robert Gauldin has collected a number of humorous examples from the Western art-music repertoire and organized them in a way similar to the examples that follow. I wish to thank Dr. Gauldin for sharing his collection of taped excerpts and outline with me.
[16] . Theodor Adorno, “On Popular Music,” reprinted in Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin, eds. On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990), 301-14.

John Covach is an associate professor of music at the University of North Carolina.

A version of this article appeared in Concert Music, Rock, and Jazz Since 1945: Essays and Analytical Studies,
edited by Elizabeth West Marvin and Richard Hermann. © 1995 John Covach. Posted with permission.

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