Shostakovich, Polka (from The Golden Age)
What makes music funny? Should we even ask the question? The writer E.B. White said,
Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.
I almost always defer to E.B. White on things having to do with writing clearly, but I think we can safely analyze some of the musical humor in this week’s selection.
We all listen to music with a set of expectations. Much of composition involves a careful balance between predictability and surprise. Humor in music also depends on predictability and surprise, although it disrupts the balance.
The surprise may be a sudden event, a departure from the norm, or some incongruity. To recognize an incongruity (or, put another way, to get the joke), you need to understand what would normally happen. Translating that to music, you need to understand the normal musical context.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) makes that relatively easy in this case. He sets up our expectations throughout by using common musical idioms. After a short introduction, he sets up a rudimentary accompaniment pattern in the left hand (at 0:05) on a single major triad. It’s childlike—something you might expect in the simplest music. The rhythms too are simple and repetitive.
But these very ordinary things set us up for surprise. We expect the little arpeggiated figure in the melody to lead to a note that fits with the simple harmony, but it takes us consistently to a note outside the key. At another point (0:44), Shostakovich presents an even simpler melody with a ponderous doubling (the same notes two octaves apart). Accents are misplaced. Dynamics and texture change suddenly for no apparent reason. Normal things, put together in an incongruous way.
It’s rather like the ordinary bowler hat worn by Charlie Chaplin. It just doesn’t quite fit.
Composers sometimes insert little “inside jokes” into their music—a device or quotation that only other musicians would recognize. But by using common idioms, Shostakovich ensures that virtually every listener will grasp the humor.