I'm drawn to the happy nature of calliope music that is used in carnivals, fairs, circuses, theme parks, etc. Also, it sounds exactly like video game music. Where does this type of music come from, is it jazz or ragtime or some other genre?

I'm wondering what are the main elements or characteristics of this style. So far I have found: sounds a bit like ragtime, 2/4 march time, syncopation (?), improvisation, allegro (~125bpm), tremolos, alternating bass between 1st and 5th root of current chord, chromatics, walking bass, reduced range (usually 3 octaves) so chords are not as full.

I'm sure I'm wrong on some of these so please let me know what I'm missing. Here's an example of a very talented performer:

  • Most of the carnival/circus music that started traipsing through my brain after reading the title was in 3/4 time, particularly highlighting "oom pa pa" music.
    – John Doe
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 20:37

1 Answer 1


You'll hear a calliope playing marches, ragtime, waltzes - anything that a brass band might play on a park or seaside bandstand (when it wasn't trying to be too 'arty' at least!) An actual calliope will probably be calling customers to a fairground attraction, so it's going to play happy, upbeat music, or maybe something stirring and patriotic.

What's being played in the example is typical calliope music. I think you can tell whether there's any unusual time signatures or harmonies. Sometimes a calliope is imitated orchestrally by 'wrong note' harmony - notably in the overture to 'Carousel'. But that's a reference to something a calliope does by accident. They aren't INTENDED to be out of tune!

Carousel overture

But just as there's a 'sad clown' meme, there's a 'sad calliope' one. This may be the most famous example: Tears of a Clown

  • In the video of the guy playing, I think the main distinction was the alternating bass (between the root and the fifth of whatever chord he's playing), chromatics, and just playing really fast.
    – user34288
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 20:37
  • also I think he was mainly playing in 2/4 no?
    – user34288
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 21:08
  • The march/ragtime stuff could well be written in 2/4, yes. The modern trend might be to notate in cut time. You can't tell which by listening! He doesn't give us any waltzes (3/4), another fairground favourite.
    – Laurence
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 21:21
  • I wasn't aware that one couldn't know if it's 4/4 or 2/4 just by listening. I got to research time signatures a bit more, thanks for that.
    – user34288
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 21:27
  • You might tell 2/4 from 4/4, though they're close cousins. But cut time (the C with a line through it notation) and 2/4 are both '2 in the bar'. No way to tell them apart aurally, other than making an educated guess which would have been more likely used in a given style at a given period. But this is a notation thing. You don't do notation!
    – Laurence
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 19:16

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