Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Off-key pronouncements

with 12 comments

Hand-written musical notation by J. S. Bach: b...
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So, there we were half-listening to the late evening BBC news last night when on comes Laura Kuenssberg, chief political correspondent, to tell us that the government is ‘moving the musical chairs’.

I looked at my mate and she looked at me and we then missed the rest of the news because we had the following conversation:

Moving the what?

The musical chairs. Apparently.

That’s not how you play musical chairs, is it?

Nope. The chairs stay still. The players move then sit down when the music stops.

So, she meant ‘playing musical chairs’?

Yep. Or, maybe ‘certain people are gonna find themselves in a new job soon’.

Unless the music stops, the person sits in their new chair, but then the government moves the chair so the person hasn’t got a new job after all.

Mood music

And while I’m on the subject of obscure music-related metaphors, how about ‘mood music’. Here’s a typical example from the BBC website:

Now the two parties are negotiating a deal and the mood music has already changed.

‘Mood music’ is a phrase regularly trotted out by print and broadcast journalists. It is both irritating and ludicrously meaningless. In the example above the word ‘music’  should be deleted.



12 Responses

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  1. Hi Deborah,

    “. . .but then the government moves the chair so the person hasn’t got a new job after all.”

    Is that possibly what Kuenssberg meant?



    14/06/2010 at 10:37 am

    • …very possibly. Or — perhaps she meant that they get a new job, but not the chair they originally thought they were going to land on when the music stopped. If you get my drift. Who can tell? This conversation could run and run…


      14/06/2010 at 10:43 am

  2. Perhaps used the term “moving the musical chairs” because she is Scottish? Could be a colloquial thing, perhaps? Or, maybe she was about to say “moving the goal posts” but made a quick change as she didn’t want to mention the words “goal posts” following the “hand of clod” debacle. Again, being Scot, she may have been worried that she would be ridiculed by some of the more touchy English footie fans.

    Lizi B

    14/06/2010 at 11:31 am

    • Hi, Lizi — your football theory has the ring of truth about it. I never thought of that!


      14/06/2010 at 11:42 am

  3. I agree with you about the mis-use of the chairs metaphor.

    Regarding the “mood music” reference, I think the intent is related to the familiarity people have with using music to cue emotions of an audience, i.e. put them in the mood. It also refers to people associating music with romance and close alliance (“They’re playing our song.”) Most recognize that an ominous-sounding motif heard under the actions of a clueless protagonist telegraph danger ahead. It’s a common aspect of “bad art”. Use of the term is often clumsy, but not meaningless.

    Invisible Mikey

    14/06/2010 at 6:38 pm

    • Hi, Mikey — thanks very much for that thoughtful analysis. I hear your experience in the film industry coming through — very interesting. You have prompted me to think about the term again, although I still find it grating. Perhaps the main problem is that it is just used too much and has become hackneyed.


      14/06/2010 at 7:16 pm

  4. In any case, I now know what this game with the chairs and the music is called in English. In German it’s “Die Reise nach Jerusalem” (the journey to Jerusalem) and now that I write it down, I’m sure there can’t be a nice story behind this etymology…


    15/06/2010 at 5:55 am

    • Hi, TaleTellerin — that’s so interesting. You have set me thinking about the origins of the game itself and if it has some sinister origin. I am also reminded of a seemingly innocent nursery rhyme, which I believe has its origins in the various plagues which have swept through this country over the centuries:

      A pocket full of posies
      Atishoo, atishoo
      We all fall down

      (There are lots of different versions of it.)

      As children we always played musical chairs at parties and very often chanted this nursery ryhme when playing generally (holding hands and then falling down at the end — endless fun. I have no idea why children today would rather play computer games).


      15/06/2010 at 6:28 am

      • Hi Deborah – this is perhaps more of an “Is your proof-reader having a mental health day, today?” category, but thought I’d share it. I was reading an article in the Mail online (masochist=me) about celebrities hosting dinner parties for each other and then rating the host’s cooking skills etc. The article has several careless, grammatical errors but then I came across this gem: “Calum asked her to leave him in peach while he cooked and told her to go outside and take some time out…”

        Leave him in peach? That’s really the pits.


        14/07/2010 at 6:29 pm

        • Hi, Jo-Anne — that’s just weird. I have never come across that expression before and have no idea what it means. Answers on a postcard to…


          14/07/2010 at 6:50 pm

          • Gosh, I’m sorry for the confusion – it’s because I’ve put it in the wrong category; It’s not an off-key pronouncement, just a silly mistake on the part of the writer. The speaker was talking to a really annoying loudmouth and wanted to be “left in peace”. We’ve all been there. 🙂


            14/07/2010 at 7:28 pm

            • Don’t worry about it! I’m being particularly thick today. Because the piece was about food I thought the writer was trying to be clever in some obscure food-related way. But it was just a typo! I’m going to the kitchen to boil my head. I may be some time.


              14/07/2010 at 7:33 pm

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