Can music without words ever be funny? Joseph Haydn’s music suggests it can be. Haydn is the acme of the wittiness of late-18th-century music in the way he soothes and startles his audience from one moment to the next, as in the contrast between the nursery-rhyme banality of the tune that opens the slow movement of his Symphony No. 94, lulling the audience into a false sense of security before a fortissimo thwack shocks us out of
our reverie.


But all I’ve ever really heard that piece do to an audience – and it’s the same with the the stop-start ending of Haydn’s so-called ‘Joke’ Quartet – is produce a smattering of cleverer-than-thou tittering, as some people want to show the rest of us that they’re frightfully clever for getting an 18th-century gag. I’ve never actually heard Haydn reduce an audience to gales of laughter.

Yet if you listen to Donald Swann’s arrangement of Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony – complete with additional key changes, percussion and bi-tonal bizarreness – at one of Gerard Hoffnung’s concerts in 1956, Haydn really does reduce an audience to uncontrollable chuckling. The lesson of Swann’s way with Haydn seems to be that the more unpredictable you make a musical gag, the more you’ll tickle our funny bones.

But there are limits to how funny our brains find musical unpredictability. If a lack of perceptual connection between a sequence of sonic events is a sure-fire route to experiential hilarity – just to really pin the butterfly of this comedic point to the board! – then the funniest music ever composed ought to be the post-war modernisms of John Cage or Pierre Boulez. But pieces like Cage’s Music of Changes or Boulez’s Structures aren’t funny, and not only in intention, but in our listening practice. That’s because – paradoxically – if you create a context of constant unpredictability, you can’t create any real sense of surprise. You can’t make us laugh by upending conventions if it’s not clear to us listening what those conventions actually are.

So what’s left for composers trying to make us LOL? Carl Nielsen used the flatulent register of the bassoon for the final note and noise of his Sixth Symphony, a gesture that sounds like a raspberry to the whole piece. And while this bassoon solo might not make an audience laugh out loud, it creates an existential comedy on the edge of continuity and discontinuity, leaving us wondering: what was all that about?


And it’s that existential comedy that music without words really can create. Both music and comedy are species of purposeful purposelessness. Music, like laughter, is a joy that disappears in a breath, into the ether. That’s the ultimate punch-line of all music: it’s so significant for all of us, but so intangible, both present and absent. Music’s essential comedy is that it’s a revelation of the essentially fleeting condition of our lives. And that’s not a joke!


BBC Radio 3 Presenter Tom Service
Tom ServiceColumnist, BBC Music Magazine

Tom Service is a familiar voice to BBC Radio 3 listeners, the station on which he has presented Music Matters since 2003 and his own programme The Listening Service, in which he breaks down how music works. He is also a monthly columnist for BBC Music Magazine. For many years, Service wrote for The Guardian, where he was chief classical music critic.