Parody music

Parody music, or musical parody, involves changing or copying existing musical ideas, and/or lyrics, or copying the particular style of a composer or performer, or even a general style of music. Although the intention of a musical parody may be humour, it is the re-use of music that is the original defining feature.
In music, parody has been used for many different purposes and in various musical contexts: as a serious compositional technique, as an unsophisticated re-use of well-known melody to present new words, and as an intentionally humorous, even mocking, reworking of existing musical material, sometimes for satirical effect.
Examples of musical parody with completely serious intent include parody masses in the 16th century, and, in the 20th century, the use of folk tunes in popular song, and neo-classical works written for the concert hall, drawing on earlier styles. "Parody" in this serious sense continues to be a term in musicological use, existing alongside the more common use of the term to refer to parody for humorous effect by composers from Bach to Sondheim and performers from Spike Jones to "Weird Al" Yankovic.


The word "parody" derives from the post-classical Latin parodia, which came from the Greek παρῳδία, a burlesque poem or song. However, in the context of European music, the "burlesque" element did not at first apply.


The earliest musical application of this Greek term was only in 1587, on the title-page of a parody mass by the German composer Jakob Paix, as the equivalent of the previously usual Latin expressions missa ad imitationem or missa super …, which were used to acknowledge the source of borrowed musical material. Such preferences for Greek terms was a product of Renaissance humanism which was strong in Germany by that time, though the word's use at the time was infrequent and casual. It was only in modern times that the term "parody technique" came into general use as a historical musicological term, especially after the publication of Peter Wagner’s Geschichte der Messe in 1913. Although the practice of borrowing preexisting polyphonic textures dates back to the 14th century, these earlier manifestations are closer to the technique of contrafactum than to the parody of 16th-century music. In the latter part of the 15th century, composers began to include the other voices of a polyphonic model in basically cantus firmus structures, such as Jacob Obrecht's Missa Fortuna desperata and Missa Rosa playsante. In Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Michael Tilmouth and Richard Sherr write of the genre:
Many of the most famous composers of the 16th century, including Victoria, Lassus and Palestrina, used a wide range of earlier music in their masses, drawing on existing secular as well as religious pieces.


After the beginning of the Baroque period, there continued to be parodies with serious intent, an example being J. S. Bach's reuse of three cantatas in his Christmas Oratorio. As musical fashions changed, however, there was little cause to re-use old modal tunes and compositional styles. After the middle of the 17th century, composers sought to create "a unique musical treatment appropriate to the text and the circumstances of performance". Thereafter the serious parody became rare until the 20th century.

Concert works and opera

The parodic elements of Bach's "Cantate burlesque", Peasant Cantata are humorous in intent, making fun of the florid da capo arias then in fashion. Thereafter "parody" in music has generally been associated with humorous or satiric treatment of borrowed or imitative material. Later in the 18th century, Mozart parodied the lame melodies and routine forms of lesser composers of his day in his Musical Joke. A century later, Saint-Saëns composed The Carnival of the Animals as a musical joke for his friends; several of the movements contain musical parody, radically changing the tempo and instrumentation of well-known melodies. Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra features the appearance of a theme from Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony.
In theatrical music, the 18th century ballad opera, which included satirical songs set to popular melodies of the time, involved some of the broadest musical parodies. In Così fan tutte Mozart parodied the elaborate solemnities of opera seria arias. His own The Magic Flute was the subject of Viennese parodies in the decades after his death. Parodies of Wagner range from Souvenirs de Bayreuth by Fauré and Messager to Anna Russell's Introduction to the Ring, which parodies the words and music of the cycle by presenting their supposed absurdities in a mock-academic lecture format.
Offenbach, a frequent parodist, was himself parodied by later composers from Saint-Saëns to Sondheim. In the Savoy operas, Sullivan parodied the styles of Handel, Bellini, Mozart, Verdi and others. His own music has been parodied ever since. The parodic use of well-known tunes with new lyrics is a common feature of Victorian burlesque and pantomime, British theatrical styles popularised in the 19th century.
Serious parody was revived, in modified form, in the 20th century, with such works as Prokoviev's Classical Symphony and Stravinsky's neo-classical works including The Fairy's Kiss and Pulcinella. However, Tilmouth and Sherr comment that although these works exhibit "the kind of interaction of composer and model that was characteristic of 16th-century parody", they nevertheless employ "a stylistic dichotomy far removed from it". The same authors comment that the use of old music in the scores of Peter Maxwell Davies similarly "engenders a conflict foreign to the total synthesis that was the aim of 16th-century parody".

Parody in popular music

Popular music has used parody in a variety of ways. These include parodies of earlier music, for comic or serious effect; parodies of musical and performing styles; and parodies of particular performers.
Before the 20th century, popular song frequently borrowed hymn tunes and other church music and substituted secular words. "John Brown's Body", the marching song of the American Civil War, was based on the tune of an earlier camp-meeting and revival hymn, and was later fitted with the words "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord", by Julia Ward Howe. This practice continued into the First World War, with many of the soldiers' songs being based on hymn tunes.
Folk song has often been written to existing tunes, or slight modifications of them. This is another very old kind of musical parody that still continues. For instance, Bob Dylan took the tune of the old slave song "No more auction block for me" as the basis for "Blowin' in the Wind".

Parodies of earlier works in popular music

In the 1940s Spike Jones and his City Slickers parodied popular music in their own way, not by changing lyrics, but adding wild sound effects and comedic stylings to formerly staid old songs. The 1957 Broadway musical Jamaica parodied the then very fashionable commercial variety of Calypso music. A musical using heavy parody was the 1959 show Little Mary Sunshine, which poked fun at old-fashioned operetta.
Parodists of music from the concert hall or lyric theatre have included Allan Sherman, known for adding comic words to existing works by such composers as Ponchielli and Sullivan; and Tom Lehrer, who has parodied Sullivan, folk music, ragtime and Viennese operetta. The pianist Victor Borge is also noted for parodies of classical and operatic works.
The musical satirist Peter Schickele created P. D. Q. Bach, a supposedly newly discovered member of the Bach family, whose creative output parodies musicological scholarship, the conventions of Baroque and classical music, as well as introducing elements of slapstick comedy.

Parodies of performing styles and performers

created parodies of popular songs in the 1950s and 1960s, mocking the musical conventions of the day, such as Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel". The bandleader and pianist Paul Weston and his wife, singer Jo Stafford, created the musical duo, "Jonathan and Darlene Edwards", as a parody of bad cabaret acts. The British group The Barron Knights became famous for their parodies of pop performers in the 1970s, whilst The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican currently perform comedy parodies of popular songs from a wide of genres primarily on folk instruments.
Parodists with differing techniques have included "Weird Al" Yankovic, who has generally put new lyrics to largely unchanged music, and Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine or The Lounge Kittens keeps the lyrics intact but alters the musical style, performing rap, metal, and rock songs in a lounge style. Country Yossi, a pioneering composer and singer in the Jewish music genre, reworks the lyrics of country music and other mainstream hits to convey Orthodox Jewish themes. Another example of musical parody is Mac Sabbath, a Black Sabbath tribute band who utilize McDonald's-themed props and costumes with altered lyrics satirizing the fast food industry.
Genre parody in the 21st century has included the 2005 musical Altar Boyz, which parodies both Christian rock and the "boy band" style of pop.