Artistic License – Music

So, you're watching this show where someone appears to be The Cast Show Off, then you notice that their hands aren't matching the notes at all. Sometimes, to the point where they didn't even try. Or, perhaps someone is talking about music and it turns out it's just musical Techno Babble.

Generally a musical inaccuracy trope. To people not familiar with music, it doesn't bother, likely because it's not relevant to the plot, but to musicians it's obvious. It also mostly applies to instrumental music, because not everyone knows the technical skills and what it looks like to play an instrument, and instruments can be easily substituted in on the soundtrack because of the uniformity of sound. Guitars sound much more like each other than voices do.

  • Type 1 is on the performance end, where an actor is playing a performer and is obviously NOT playing it in real life. Sometimes this is Lampshaded for comic effect, and thus Breaking the Fourth Wall. May also be Impractical Musical Instrument Skills, which are usually Played for Laughs as well.
  • Type 2 is on the writing or editing end, where the writer or editor is not familiar with music. This applies to incorrect terminology, obvious dubbing or computerized music. This is less common because usually higher-end productions come with a composer, sound editor, music supervisor, etc, and have decent sound libraries. A good example, most obviously and notoriously, is the use of the phrase 'rising to/reaching crescendo' - crescendo refers to the rising of volume of a piece; it's a process, not a destination.

Note: Lip-synching does not apply here, because most people know how to lip synch, and music videos almost always are the voices of the artist.


  • Bruce Campbell recorded a commercial for Old Spice where he's playing "Hungry Like the Wolf" on a piano. About twenty seconds in, he lifts both his hands off the keys to point at his audience, while the piano keeps playing.

  • In Divinity, Hinata, Sakura, Ino, Tenten, and Temari all are learning musical instruments...but since nobody else plays the harp, Hinata's stuck teaching herself instead of being tutored. The girls are seven or eight at the oldest.

  • August Rush: Electric guitars without amps, a so-so composition that gets him into Juilliard without the audition process. Generally the movie did not play well with musicians.
  • Bedazzled (2000) (the remake): Brendan Fraser is playing guitar during one of the fantasies, and he has his hand above the capo.
  • Drumline: The printed music that comes out of a snare drum solo in the middle of the movie has sharps and flats, despite the fact that a snare drum has only one note (roughly, "bang").
  • The Parent Trap: Hayley Mills is not moving her fingers when playing guitar Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Then on "Let's Get Together" her strumming does not match the music (in addition to not moving her fingers).
  • Waiting for Guffman: In the overture, someone decided to dub in MIDI instruments. This is either a gigantic In-Joke to musicians, or an Epic Fail on behalf of the music editor. It's not Lampshaded.
  • Mostly averted by Ralph Macchio in Crossroads (1986), due to the fact that Steve Fuckin' Vai (who plays the Devil) coached him through it. But sharp-eyed guitarists can see several instances where he's off during the guitar showdown with said Devil.
  • Walk the Line: Waylon Payne (as Jerry Lee Lewis) is backed by an electric bassist, but an upright bass is heard instead.
  • Groundhog Day: during the big dance scene at the end, an upright bassist is shown but an electric bass is heard.
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit: In the scene where Eddie Valiant is mingling with the toons at Maroon Studios, he comes across a saxophonist standing next to the enchanted brooms from Fantasia. However, the saxophonist is just swaying his body while playing the saxophone; he isn't even moving his fingers. (Although a toon saxophone probably would be able to play itself.) And, to add insult to injury, it's not even a real sax playing. It's a synth.
  • In the Canadian film Hard Core Logo, Callum Keith Rennie's portrayal of Billy Tallent, guitarist of the eponymous band, barely even looks like he's trying during the performance scenes. Hugh Dillion as singer/rhythm guitarist Joe Dick is much more believable, as he's an actual musician.
  • Kirk Douglas may do his own singing for the song "Whale of a Tale" in the movie Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but he certainly doesn't handle the music. Like most fake guitar players, he remembers to strum, but almost completely ignores the existence of the frets.
  • In the film version of Ghost World, the actor portraying the guitarist/singer of Blueshammer has never played a guitar in his life.
  • In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, at the end, when Amazing Freaking Grace is played, James Doohan's fingers do not match the notes being played. For anyone familiar with the bagpipes, this is very, very obvious, but hardly a drama-breaker.
  • Dooley Wilson, who played Sam in Casablanca, was a drummer, not a pianist. It's fairly obvious.
  • The "banjo boy" character in Deliverance is clearly not playing the banjo part of "Duelling Banjos", which in turn is obviously being played on a resonator banjo. Both the banjo AND the guitar have capos, which would not be required for playing in G.
  • Eagle Eye is particularly bad. The final scene involves a group of grade school students playing the national anthem. First, the song is difficult enough that grade-schoolers would almost certainly not be able to play it. Second, they play it absolutely perfectly, despite being children. Third, anyone who plays one of the instruments in question can see that their hand movements are completely random.
  • In The Competition (1980), Richard Dreyfuss plays a classical pianist facing a last-chance, make-or-break competition. At times while he is "playing," he looks down at the keys as though the hands playing aren't his ... and they're not.
  • In a unique version of this trope, the titular character of Mr. Bean's Holiday performs for money by lip syncing to the opera aria Oh mio babbino caro while enacting a scene where he plays a woman who is apparently mourning her dead child. The trope comes in here since the show he puts on has absolutely nothing in common with the lyrics of the song which are actually about a girl threatening that she will commit suicide if her father will not accept the man she loves. The scene is played for laughs though, so it is forgivable.
  • While it is less obvious, in the climactic scene of "Back to the Future," Marty is clearly not playing the guitar. it becomes painfully obvious during the solo. Years later, Michael J Fox really did learn Johnny B. Goode and performed it at an event.

Live-Action TV
  • In Kids Incorporated, the actors aren't really playing the instruments. Ironically, some of the show's cast have gone on to have real-world music careers, though always as singers.
  • An episode of Bones has Dr. Brennan claiming that by knowing how to play the akonting (a West-African 3 stringed, non-fretted lute), she could play blues-style electric guitar. While the writers were trying to Show Their Work by knowing what an akonting is, the instruments are too distant in style, culture, structure, and tuning to pull that off.
  • Glee:
    • Calling what they do a "glee club" is like calling a rock band a "string orchestra." The term is "show choir," which they do acknowledge in show. "Show Choir" probably didn't sound as cool a title.
    • Glee had a madrigal choir competing against New Directions at a show-choir competition. There are other competitions for typical school choirs (not show choirs), where one would think that a madrigal choir, with their use of classical repertoire and lack of dancing, would fit better.
    • There's also the case of the Warblers, who are supposed to be an a capella group. This would be much more believable if half their backing vocals weren't so obviously synthesizers.
  • In the show Okaasan To Issho, there's a skit for a music video called Rock N Roll Dragon that has the hosts pretending to be a rock band. Mitani and Itou are the guitarist and bassist and obviously have no clue how to play, and they don't even fake it (they simply hold the guitars rigidly). Kobayashi behind the skins seems to know what he's doing, though
  • Heroes: Emma playing the cello is to a lesser degree. She does move her fingers some, and some of the open strings match what is heard.
  • Parks and Recreation: Leslie is listening to bluegrass music, and the banjo is MIDI. It could be a case of Leslie not being able to distinguish real instruments from MIDI, but most $1.00 CDs you can get at a gas station have real instruments.
  • Kelsey Grammer's fake piano playing is actually pretty convincing in Frasier but if you look closely you can see that it's dubbed. Definitely not Lampshaded.
  • The Hot In Cleveland episode where the girls form a band seems to have been this trope. It's most obvious for Betty White's character. You really gonna make a woman in her eighties hit those drums?
  • When Montoya plays the violin in the first episode of Queen of Swords, he just draws the bow across the strings in no particular rhythm, and doesn't even bother moving his fingers.
  • Type 1 is averted and then played straight in the Mysterious Ways episode "Free Spirit": in the first few scenes of Miranda playing the violin, the finger movements and bow strokes match the music, but when she plays later in the episode she's obviously faking. Since her face is only clearly shown in the later scene, the difference could be explained by the use of a Talent Double.
  • An episode of ER featured a gifted young violinist. At the end of the episode, he performs a piece - his fingering movements are completely out of sync with the music.
  • In an episode of The Big Bang Theory, Leonard is playing in a string quartet with the hairs on his bow facing outwards. The bow hair on the string is what makes the sound on the cello. This is doubly suprising given that Johnny Galecki is a trained cellist and is seen using it correctly at least once. Not to mention that after half of the quartet leave, He and Leslie practice with just the two of them - and the full quartet's sound.
  • Love Me Licia (the Italian live sequel to Ai Shite Night) zigzags this. In the first seasons is mostly played straight (like musicians' fingers moving incorrectly, or not moving at all), but the drummer averts this, because he can really play the drums. This trope becomes less evident in later seasons, which mostly feature different band members, and where even the photography evolves to show that yes, this time the guitar virtuosisms are real.
  • Slater from Saved by the Bell is so good at playing drums that we hear the beats before he even hits the drums.
  • Although the musical numbers featured on Later... with Jools Holland are notable for not having the artists use prerecorded music or vocals, it doesn't mean that the various effects and session musicians aren't fair game. This performance by blur not only features a painful missed cue where lead singer Damon Albarn strikes a pose and waits in vain for the song to start, but also a string section that starts playing a good couple of beats after their parts have started playing.
  • Often done deliberately by performers on Top of the Pops, in protest at being required to mime. Many an instrument was seen to play itself, without any help from its performer.

Music Videos
  • Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love". Some people criticized the video because the "musicians" (portrayed by fashion models) were not correctly playing their guitars. VH-1's Pop Up Video said that a musician was hired to teach the models basic guitar fingering techniques, but "gave up after about an hour and left".
  • The music video for "If I Die Young" by The Band Perry has one of Perrys playing an accordion. Even the least musically-inclined person can tell there's no accordion in the song (it's a ballad; why would they even use one?).
  • Similarly, Scatman John's "Scatman" video has a trumpeter, upright bassist and drummer in it, when all of the instruments are obviously synthesized.
  • And in the video for The Bellamy Brothers' "Old Hippie (The Sequel)", one of them is strumming a resonator guitar in the video. This is doubly wrong; besides the complete lack of said instrument in the song, resonator guitars are usually played horizontally (like a lap steel guitar) or finger-picked, not strummed.
  • Rebecca Black's song (no, not "Friday") "My Moment". At the beginning of the song you see Rebecca Black in a recording studio with a guitarist, a drummer and a bass player. Absolutely nowhere in the song can you hear a guitar or a bass.
  • Richard Swift's "Knee-High Boogie Blues" video has a lot of closeup shots where it's obvious the drumsticks are not touching the drum head at any point, and the guitarist isn't touching the strings at all. It's so obvious that one can only assume that it was intentional.
  • "Weird Al" Yankovic has often had to mime playing guitar for the various artists he imitates. His fake fingerings are most obvious in the video for "The Saga Begins".
  • Helloween leans on the fourth wall while miming playing in their video for Halloween as the drums keep going after they stop playing on screen, and the band looks around in mock bewilderment.
  • Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty." The video features musicians "playing" the (sampled) saxophone solo... on trumpets.
  • In Trent Tomlinson's "One Wing in the Fire", the angles make it hard to tell whether or not he's faking his piano playing. However, there are three pianists on the album, none of whom are named Trent Tomlinson…
  • In Jeff Foxworthy and Alan Jackson's "Redneck Games" (which consists of snippets of a Foxworthy routine on the 1996 Atlanta Olympics set to music, with a sung chorus by Jackson), Foxworthy repeatedly lip-syncs to Jackson's sung lines, even though at no point in the song does Foxworthy actually sing.
  • Billy Squier's Performance Video for "The Stroke" has him occasionally miming harmonica during instrumental sections, despite there not being a harmonica anywhere in the song. According to Pop Up Video, this was because he wasn't miming his guitar part in the video, but still wanted to be depicted playing something.

Video Games
  • Donkey Kong 64: Two of the playable characters' instruments don't sound like their real life counterparts. Donkey Kong's bongos are much more melodic than real bongos, but it's particularly egregious with Chunky Kong's triangle. It actually makes the sound of a celesta, a completely different instrument!
  • Rock Band and Guitar Hero avatars are designed by real musicians who took painstaking care in making the avatars come as close as possible to miming the's only noticeable when the song has instruments that aren't in the game design (like banjos) or the drummer is hitting a piece of percussion that's not present in his kit, instead going to the closest facsimile. And of course ghost orchestras, horn sections, etc (although in Rock Band 3 you could chalk them up to samples from the keyboard player).


Web Original
  • Ashens And The Quest For The Game Child, when Stuart unlocks the door with a piano, the paper that he is using for reference reads ABADGH. He actually plays ABABCB and then the highest key, which is marked with an H. As well, him playing a B is taken as incorrect, despite it being a correct note.
    • It's worth noting, however, that H is a letter used in some musical spellings, where it stands for B-flat.

Western Animation

  • Cannibal The Musical: The conversation at the end of "The Trapper Song" is an aversion. Trey Parker and Matt Stone obviously know their basic music theory.
    Frenchy: Nutter was singing in the wrong key!
    Nutter: No I wasn't. It was Loutzenheiser. I was singing in E♭ minor.
    Frenchy: The song's in F♯ major!
    Bell: I think they're the same thing. I mean, E♭ is the relative minor of F♯.
    Frenchy: No, it isn't. The relative minor is 3 half-tones down from the major, not up!
    Noon: No, it's 3 down. Like A is the relative minor of C major.
    Loutzenheiser: But isn't A♯ in C major?
    Bell: Wait, are you singing mixolydian scales, or something?
    Frenchy: A# is tonic to C major. It's the 6th!
    Humphrey: No it isn't!
    Swan: Well, it'd be like a raised 13th if anything.
  • In performances of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Schroeder's miniature piano is obviously fake, and an orchestra piano is what's actually playing; some of the notes aren't even possible on a piano the size of his.
    • Toy pianos like Schroeder's generally can't play accidentals (sharps and flats). It's even pointed out in one comic strip that the black keys are just painted on.
    • In A Charlie Brown Christmas, his toy piano is versatile enough to sound like a classical piano and a pipe organ (Rule of Funny is in full effect for the scene in question).
  • The sound of Roger's acoustic guitar in RENT is obviously an electric guitar being played offstage; he doesn't even strum the strings.