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Music You’ve Heard But Can’t Name

Leroy Anderson came up in conversation recently, and I remarked that his orchestral compositions are a perfect example of music that everybody’s heard but (almost) nobody can name. When you hear an Anderson piece, you think, Sure, everybody’s heard that! But then you waste a minute or two trying to remember what it’s called. And you fail.

There are exceptions. Anderson wrote “Sleigh Ride,” and although you may not remember the name of the composer, you damned well know the name of the song.

I’m not sure what Leroy Anderson’s most-heard but least-named piece is, but I’d wager it’s “Fiddle Faddle.” (If you like ants, here’s a video of ants walking around to “Fiddle Faddle.” Don’t watch it if you don’t like bugs. Fits somehow, though, doesn’t it?) Second place may well go to “Blue Tango.” with “Forgotten Dreams” close behind. A lot of people know the name of “The Syncopated Clock,” but fewer, I think, could name Anderson as the composer.

My personal Anderson favorite may not be quite as well-known (It only made it to #180 of the Billboard annual tally–in 1953) but if you’re among the 50+ crowd, you’ve definitely heard it. And the sound effects pretty much give it away. My grandmother gifted me her huge cast-iron Underwood typewriter in 1962, when I could barely lift it myself. I pounded on it for six years, until my godmother bought me a Smith-Corona electric in 1968. The Underwood Standard #5 hammered out a lot of my juvenalia during its tenure, but I’m pretty sure that it could not smack the platen anywhere near fast enough to do justice to Anderson’s borderline-manic “The Typewriter.” This guy tries pretty hard, though with a much smaller typewriter.

Which leads me to wonder: How many people these days have ever actually heard a manual typeriter, much less used one?

As for un-nameable music, Leroy Anderson had no lock on the concept. I think a lot of people have heard at least portions of “The Light Cavalry Overture” without knowing what it was. You’ll have to listen for a couple of minutes to get to the familiar part. But when you do, you’ll know it. It’s become a metaphor for slogging doggedly along, and in truth I like the other parts better. Ditto Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld Overture.” You have to get about seven minutes into the work, but, then, yes, you’ve heard it a hundred times.

Any others come to mind?


  1. Jonathan O'Neal says:

    Obscurity is relative, of course – perhaps I’m simply one of 10,000 on this one, but Adagio for Strings is familiar to many, having been played at state funerals, in movie soundtracks, television shows, video games, etc. I’m guessing that most of those folks couldn’t name Samuel Barber as the composer, though. I think I was in my fifties before I bothered looking up the creator of this haunting piece that I’d heard countless times.

    1. No question about “Adagio for Strings;” I suspect it’s Barber’s best-known piece, though a little somber for my tastes. I can definitely understand it being played at state funerals. But I doubt it’s played often enough or (more important, I think) broadly enough to be familiar to the general public. We keep the superb local classical station on all day, so I hear a great deal of classical music. “Adagio” comes up once a week or so. Not as often as “Carmen” or (oddly) Satie’s “Gymnopedie” but it’s out there. I doubt I would know of it at all if I didn’t listen to classical music as much

      There are a couple of pieces that I’ve heard in old cartoons. Kabalevsky’s “Comedians’ Galop” is one. Ditto Ketelbey’s “In a Persian Market,” though without the choral part. The old folksong “Devil’s Dream” has been used in a lot of places, but I doubt most people know its name. (Howard cable arranged it as part of his “Snake Fence Country” medleys for wind band.)

      And let us not forget Gounod’s “Funeral March for a Marionette,” right before the creepy bald guy steps out of the shadows and says “Good Eeeeeeeevning.”

      I’ll post more here in the comments if I think of them.

  2. David Stafford says:

    Another one for your list: “Entry Of The Gladiators” by Julius Fucik.

    I can’t help but picture gladiators marching in wearing clown costumes when I hear it.

    1. Yes! Everybody knows that one–but like you, they think of clowns. I’m not sure if poor Mr. Fucik lived long enough to see his gladiator march identified almost completely with circuses.

      A couple of other pieces are in the back of my mind, mostly famous from cartoons, but–yup–I have no idea what they’re called. The tempo’s too quick for Query By Humming, though I can at least whistle one of them.

  3. Tom says:

    The William Tell Overture…

    “….the Lone Ranger rides again!”

    1. It’s not the same without the Fred Foy voiceover. 🙂

  4. wrm says:

    It once took me over ten years to identify this tune (also, the message is… words fail me) Band and song title in the comments please 🙂

    1. Well, I’ll confess that I’ve never heard the song before, in either the slow form or the fast, jazzy form.

      1. wrm says:

        It’s called Volga Volga Mat Rodnaya but the interesting thing is that it got hijacked by the Seekers “Carnival is Over” between the time the movie is set and the time the movie was made. And I’m thinking you might have heard that tune?

  5. I’m guessing that a lot of people are familiar with Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” but couldn’t name it if asked. Part of this is Allan Sherman’s parody song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” which used the first part of the ballet music to very good effect. It’s also in Disney’s Fantasia, including the energetic second movement, where alligators tear around (IIRC) on ice skates.

    The second movement is also used in a kid record from 1949 called “The Little Tune That Ran Away.” (It was a hand-me-down from my older cousins.) The poor tune is being chased around by a mob of orchestra musicians, singing things like “Don’t try to get away! We’ll find another way! We’ll play you in cowboy rhythm…”

  6. Bob Halloran says:

    Back in the day, WCBS in NYC used ‘Syncopated Clock’ as the intro music for their old-movie “Late Show”, which is probably where I first heard it. They later used it for their other out-of-the-movie-vault shows before the onset of syndicated talk shows into the afternoon slots.

  7. As it turns out, I have several Leroy Anderson pieces on iTunes. This includes “Buglers’ Holiday” which I knew mainly from _Ted Mack’s Original Amature Hour_. I also have “Plink, Plank, Plunk!” I hadn’t realized until now that those were by the same guy!

    1. I’d heard “Plink, Plank, Plunk” but not a great deal. There’s some connection to The Pink Panther, which I’ve never seen. Nice piece. Makes me wonder whatever else Anderson has that I’ve forgotten or never heard to begin with.

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