THREAD: Lots of us learned classical music from watching old cartoons, so I’m going to identify the pieces that frequently popped up.

One of the most recognizable is Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2,” performed by those great piano virtuosos Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry.
I don’t know who can listen to the famous opera “The Barber of Seville” by Gioachino Rossini without thinking of Bugs Bunny. The way director Chuck Jones synchronizes the slapstick action to the soundtrack is flat-out masterful.
An aria of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” that shows up constantly in animation is “Largo al Factotum,” which introduces the Figaro character. Even the piece’s Wikipedia article credits the tune’s lasting legacy to its use in cartoons. Here are just a few iconic examples:
You may not know Franz Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig” by name, you’ll know it when you hear it, thanks to Looney Tunes cartoons. It was written about a supernatural king of the fairies, but WB composer Carl Stalling would always pull it out to underscore a villain’s entrance.
“Dance of the Comedians” by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana (from the comic opera THE BARTERED BRIDE) was used as an unofficial musical theme for the Road Runner cartoons. The propulsive energy of the piece matches well with Wile E. Coyote’s various failures.
“The Light Cavalry Overture” by Austrian composer Franz von Suppé was most memorably used in the Mickey Mouse short SYMPHONY HOUR, probably Disney’s funniest cartoon ever, where Goofy breaks all the instruments and the orchestra has to play a wacky Spike Jones-esque rendition.
Franz von Suppé got quite a workout in classic cartoons. “The Poet and Peasant Overture” shows up in dozens of shorts. My favorite is Popeye conducting the “Spinach Overture” while giving Bluto a rhythmic beatdown perfectly in time with the music.
Bugs Bunny famously conducted Franz von Suppé’s “Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna” in the classic BATON BUNNY. This cartoon has been screened with live orchestral accompaniment on Broadway, at the Hollywood Bowl, and the Royal Festival Hall for the royal family.
The work of Austrian composer Johann Strauss, known as the Waltz King, is in literally hundreds of cartoons. "Frühlingsstimmen, Op. 410 (Voices of Spring)" was frequently used when characters dance or daintily frolic across the screen. You'll know it when you hear it:
A CORNY CONCERTO, Bob Clampett’s hilarious spoof of Disney’s FANTASIA, brilliantly sets a violent Bugs Bunny chase to Johann Strauss’s peaceful “Tales from the Vienna Woods.” You can make any classical piece better by adding the “b-b-b-b-b” noise.
“The Blue Danube” is one of Strauss’s most famous and beautiful waltzes, thus making it ripe for animated parody. The piece was burned into my brain from infancy due to a VHS tape I had of A CORNY CONCERTO, and now I always hear quacking to go along with it.
“Die Fledermaus” by Johann Strauss served as the entire basis for the 1950 MGM short TOM AND JERRY IN THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL. As with several Bugs Bunny shorts, this film later was actually screened at the Hollywood Bowl, with live orchestrations to go with it.
Strauss must be the #1 composer among cartoonists, because he sure shows up a lot. The Oscar-winning Tom & Jerry short JOHANN MOUSE is even named after him. Here are just a few different Strauss pieces that have made their way into animated shorts:
Some pieces are ONLY famous due to their use in cartoons. I could find almost no information on Arthur A. Penn’s 1907 piece “Carissima,” but cartoon fans will remember its inclusion in this hilarious bit from the Sylvester cartoon BACK ALLEY OPROAR.
The extremely brief Wikipedia article on composer Gustav Lange features the dismissive quote that his works are "pretty in character, but they are not marked by any very striking features." I think cartoon fanatics would disagree. "Flower Song" is an oft-used classic:
It's strange to be intimately familiar with a piece of music without ever actually knowing what it is. This piece is called "Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor" by Gaetano Donizetti, but to me it will be "the one where Bugs Bunny ruins that guy's opera."
The hypnotic "Fingal's Cave Overture" by Felix Mendelssohn was used as the theme music for the mysterious Minah Bird in several WB cartoons. Director Chuck Jones said of these films, "They were really fourth-dimensional pictures and I don’t understand the fourth dimension.”
A Mendelssohn piece that you hear constantly in classic cartoons, and even more recent ones like REN & STIMPY and SPONGEBOB, is "Frühlingslied (Spring Song)," which is used to denote peace and tranquility. This is my favorite instance, from the first Ralph Wolf-Sam Sheepdog film.
"The Minute Waltz" by Polish composer Frédéric Chopin (or as Bugs would say, "Choppin') is featured in the classic short HYDE AND HARE, where the beautiful trill descends into madness.
Another Chopin piece everybody knows from cartoons is "Funeral March," which plays when a character dies or is about to die, as in this memorable bit from the Merrie Melodies short BARS AND STRIPES FOREVER.
Chopin is all over classic cartoons. Woody Woodpecker devoted an entire Oscar-nominated cartoon to his works. And who can forget Tom gliding in the air with makeshift wings to "Grande Valse Brillante?" A small sample:
French composer François-Joseph Gossec was influential in his era, but isn't terribly well-known today. But I think you might recognize his "Gavotte," which was used to underscore something pleasant or dainty (usually ironically) in Warner Bros. cartoons.
Brahms' Hungarian Dances serve as the soundtrack for the WB classic PIGS IN A POLKA. Director Friz Freleng would time out his cartoons on musical bar sheets in order to get the synchronization precise. This is Freleng at his best:
The surest way to get a cartoon character to fall asleep is to sing them "Brahms' Lullaby." Also be sure to throw the phrase "close your big bloodshot eyes" in there somewhere.
And the surest way to make a cartoon character cry is to play them "Träumerei" by Robert Schumann on the violin. Elmer Fudd even cries in time to the music here:
Beethoven's Fifth was used in World War II cartoons for a very specific reason: the Morse Code for "V" is dot-dot-dot-dash, and so the similar motif from the Beethoven piece symbolized "V for Victory" to wartime audiences.
The works of Ludwig van Beethoven are all over classic Looney Tunes and Disney shorts. Beethoven is even the hero of a famous cartoon character: Schroeder from PEANUTS.
(I should add as a bit of shameless self-promotion that I used Beethoven's "Adagio Cantabile" from "Sonata Pathétique No. 8, op. 13" in my cartoon MUSICAL MAN AND THE MAGIC KAZOO.)
Mozart's "Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545," re-popularized by Raymond Scott's jazzy 1939 rendition "In an 18th Century Drawing Room," was often used in cartoons set in stuffy mansions and became something of a theme for Granny of the Tweety & Sylvester cartoons.
Tchaikovsky’s strongest ties to animation are probably the Disney features FANTASIA and SLEEPING BEAUTY, but his music popped up in dozens of Looney Tunes and MGM cartoons, providing the soundtrack for shoemaking elves, ice skating mice, and suicidal birds.
Disney is associated with wholesome family entertainment nowadays, but the studio’s earliest Silly Symphonies focused on dancing skeletons and demons cavorting in the fiery pit of Hell, backed up by macabre melodies from Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.
"Sobre las Olas (Over the Waves)" used to mis-attributed to Strauss, but it was actually the work of Mexican composer Juventino Rosas. It became the go-to cartoon theme for magic tricks and tight-wire acts. "Roota-voota-zoot!"
German/Jewish composer Leon Jessel was killed by the Nazis and they tried to suppress his work, but his legacy has survived, partly thanks to cartoons. His "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" is a classic, and there was an entire Betty Boop cartoon formed around the piece in 1933.
"Ochi Chernye (Dark Eyes)" is a song by Russian composer Florian Hermann. Cartoons set in Russia or formed around gremlins inevitably feature this unforgettable tune:
"Wintermärchen, Op. 366" by Austro-Hungarian composer Alphons Czibulka is another one I assumed everybody knew as a kid because of its frequent use in cartoons. It generally shows up in scenes of over-the-top melodrama, stretching back to the very first Looney Tune in 1930.
Jacques Offenbach's "Valse des Rayons" from "Le Papillon" became associated in cartoons with the French Apache Dance, which reenacts a violent interaction between a pimp and a prostitute. Naturally, it was perfect for a Popeye fight:
"The William Tell Overture" is probably the piece used most often in all of cartoon history. It frequently plays against chases and galloping horses, likely inspired by its use in the Lone Ranger radio show. Daffy Duck's rapid-fire interpretation is genius:
The prelude to "The William Tell Overture," called "Dawn," plays at the beginning of lots of cartoons to indicate early morning, right before things descend into chaos, as in this classic sequence from PORKY IN WACKYLAND:
The 1935 Disney short THE BAND CONCERT, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon in color, is entirely formed around "The William Tell Overture" and climaxes in the furious "Storm" section. Disney at its best:
And last - WHAT'S OPERA, DOC?, a brilliant combination of Wagner and Wabbit. This was voted the greatest cartoon of all time by over 1000 professionals and was the first cartoon preserved by the National Film Registry. How can you hear this music and not sing "Kill da wabbit?"
Thanks for reading, everybody! Here's a link to my music-themed cartoon:

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Jan 27, 2022
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