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Captivity Harmonica

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Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Except for this little beauty.

[prisoner plays harmonica]
Homer: That's sorta nice. What're you in for?
Prisoner: Atmosphere.
The Simpsons, "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish"

When various characters are trapped or held captive (say, during a jail scene) the harmonica may be played, as Background Music if not by an actual character. It's also done in isolation, such as being stranded or lost in the wilderness. Or just camping or boredom, which borderline qualifies as the previous. Sometimes associated with Wild West or Deep South settings.

See also Brig Ball Bouncing, another pastime used to illustrate a character trying to fill in empty time while in confinement or prison.



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  • A drunk driving PSA features a man sitting on a small bed in a dark, empty room, throwing a ball against the wall as a harmonica soundtrack plays in the background and a narrator talks about the consequences for drunk driving including "doing time". This is revealed to be a parody of the trope's normal use when we hear his mother yell at him to stop bouncing the ball: Turns out he's not in jail, he just had to move back in with his parents because a large fine (probably combined with no longer being able to drive to work) caused him to no longer be able to afford rent.

    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 

    Fan Fiction 
  • When Kyon went to talk with an inmate in Kyon: Big Damn Hero, the inmate in the cell next to his is shown playing the harmonica. They use the music from it to prevent anybody from hearing Kyon's conversation.
  • Socrates does this while jailed in Calvin and Hobbes: The Series.
  • In Shadowchasers: Ascension Tiberius - a major villain from the previous fic of the franchise - is in the maximum security wing of prison and starts to get annoyed by a prisoner in the next cell, playing a harmonica. (The conversation is a Villainous BSoD for him, as he realizes no-one is frightened of him anymore):
    Tiberius: Will you stop playing that thing?
    Inmate: Do you mind? I'll play this "thing" as much as I please.
    Tiberius: If I could get over there, I’d strangle you.
    Inmate: Yeah? Well, you can’t, so shut up.

    Film — Animated 
  • Parodied in Chicken Run when Rocky comes back to find the chickens milling about the overturned food trough, having just heard from Ginger that they're all going to die, and there's one hen playing a mournful harmonica.
  • Played for laughs in Toy Story 3, harmonica background music plays when the toys are incarcerated, but then we see that it's actually Hamm playing it . He is promptly told to knock it off.
  • Ike plays a harmonica while hiding in the attic in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
  • Played with in Wishology: The harmonica turns out to be music coming from a record player, whose turntable is being operated by the captive fairies.
  • The fish in the pound does this in the Shaun the Sheep movie.
  • Peter in The Camel Boy, after he was imprisoned in an Arabian jail for sneaking into the country.

    Film — Live Action 
  • In Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, our titular character is typically seen blowing on a folded leaf in this manner - and pulls it off fairly well. (Probably because he broke his harmonica killing half the prison population off-screen.)
  • In the movie Club Paradise, Robin Williams imitates playing a harmonica with his own voice while locked up. (He loves this gag, apparently, see Mork & Mindy below.)
  • In Police Academy, Larvell Jones uses his own voice to imitate a harmonica while held at a police station.
  • It's likely Ennio Morricone was the Trope Codifier here; he liked to use harmonicas a lot in his Spaghetti Western scores, along with whistling, to draw attention to a solitary protagonist. The harmonica is used in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as Blondie and Tuco get marched into the Union prison camp, and in Once Upon a Time in the West it's given centre-stage as Harmonica's trademark.
  • Horror film Prison has a whole captivity band which appears couple of times.
  • Jesse from Free Willy plays harmonica. Played with in that as a youth he's obviously not in jail (or if he would be it would be in juvie), but is placed with a foster family that he initially rejects and forced to work at a water park to make up for earlier vandalism. The sounds attract the killer whale he end up befriending.
  • Subverted in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy learns that Red used to play harmonica before he went to jail, and gets him one as a gift. Red declines to play it.
  • Battle Beyond the Stars. Space Trucker Cowboy plays his harmonica while Jackers wear down his shields.
  • Variations
  • In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Dodge plays the harmonica given to him by his father while he and Penny spend a night in jail.
  • Super Mario Bros.: During the brief scene when the Mario Bros and Toad are in prison, Toad is playing one and singing a song about how's in jail with the plumbers. He stops when he can't think of a word that rhymes with dimension.
    Mario: Tension. And I'm full of it, so shut up.
  • In Fled, Dodge (Stephen Baldwin) and Piper (Lawrence Fishburne) are fleeing captivity while handcuffed together, and Dodge complains that if they don't establish a rhythm to their running, he'll get his hand ripped off. Piper replies "here's your rhythm, convict", produces a harmonica, plays it and runs in time.
  • In The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, Barney plays the harp when he and Fred are falsely arrested.
  • Rowlf does this in The Muppet Movie when he, Fozzie, Kermit, Gonzo, and Miss Piggy are stranded in the desert after their car breaks down.note 
  • Destination Moon. It's not a prison version, but while on a rocket flight to the Moon for which he didn't exactly volunteer, Joe plays "Kathleen" on his harmonica to pass the time.
  • More Dead Than Alive: One of the prisoners watching the executions is playing a harmonica. This serves as a diegetic soundtrack for the hangings.

  • In the novel Forrest Gump, Forest learns to play harmonica from his buddy Bubba in Vietnam. Forest plays it for Bubba as he lies dying. Not used in the movie.
  • It appears, half by accident, in the Apprentice Adept books. Stile is trapped in the Black Adept's dungeon chambers, with no food and very little to do, but he still has a harmonica that he found a few chapters earlier.

    Live Action TV 
  • The titular Titus plays one when he and his brother Dave are forced to do all of Papa Titus's chores.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959):
  • Lampshaded in the NCIS "Frame-Up". DiNozzo is framed for murdering a woman and is held by the FBI because all signs seem to be pointing to him. DiNozzo's typical target for jokes, McGee, strolls past the jail cell playing harmonica, then gives it to DiNozzo as a "present".
  • While he's not a captive, Richard O'Brien from The Crystal Maze would sometimes whip out a harmonica and start playing while contestants were working on a puzzle.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000:
    • In the episode Future War, when the hero and heroine are hiding out in a boxcar, Mike and the bots riff "Well, I suppose one of us has to play harmonica".
    • In a scene cut from The Movie, the crew is forced to go into a shelter as the Satellite of Love passes through a meteor shower. As a harmonica plays, the camera pans over Mike checking on Gypsy, Servo hoarding canned food, and...Crow playing the harmonica.
  • Mork imitated playing the harmonica with his voice while locked up in several Mork & Mindy episodes. When Mindy gets arrested for refusing to reveal a source Mork brings her, among other things, a harmonica to play while she's locked up.
  • In "Parrot Island," the second part of the pilot episode of The Suite Life on Deck, London Tipton plays a harmonica while imprisoned on the titular island. She plays it surprisingly well, given the character's history.
  • Played on Have I Got News for You (and surprisingly well) by outgoing former MP, Lembit Opik, in mourning for his former employment.
  • Les Stroud, star of Survivorman, is actually a professional harmonica player. So a lot of times when he's stranded out in the wilderness and all, he'll just jam with it for a few minutes to cheer himself up.
    • Once produced a particularly amusing situation. Les was out in Alaska or some other very snowy region. Before climbing into bed in his snow shelter(!), he took it out and played it for about 10 seconds before suddenly stopping and saying:
    • In one episode, when he had to disassemble a harmonica to obtain material for one of his survival techniques, he called it "the ultimate sacrifice".
  • In Drake & Josh, Josh plays one in a jail cell. The prisoner next to him crushes it and then gives it back.
  • In an Alternate Reality Episode of Boy Meets World in which the main characters are soldiers fighting in WWII, Cory plays the harmonica because he's separated from his High School Sweetheart Topanga.
    Alan: You really miss her, don't you?
  • In Married... with Children, when Buck runs away and ends up in the pound, it's very prison-ish, complete with harmonica-playing pooch.
  • Farscape. in the episode Different Destinations, our heroes find themselves under siege and "Harvey", the neural-clone of Scorpius trapped in Crichton's mind, whips out a harmonica and plays "Home on the Range".
    Harvey: (after he's finished playing) Aaaahhh John! If this situation hadn't reminded you of all those old westerns you watched as a youth, I never would have heard that!
  • In one episode of Hot in Cleveland, Elka plays the harmonica in jail to which Mary Tyler Moore's character tells her to stop.
  • In one episode of Power Rangers Zeo, after the Monster of the Week and some Mooks capture Bulk and Skull and throw them in a makeshift cage, Skull starts playing a harmonica he just happened to have - which really starts to annoy Bulk. ("Do everyone a favor!" he shouts, "stick to the piano!") Fortunately, the Rangers find them before he drives Bulk nuts.
  • Midsomer Murders: A flashback in "Death in a Chocolate Box" to when the second Victim of the Week was in prison shows him playing the harmonica. When his new probabtion officer (the first Victim of the Week) enters, he pays a mocking note.
  • Parodied in True Jackson, VP, many of the protagonists end in a mall jail, and the security guard actually provides an harmonica to every new detainee.
  • The Outer Limits (1995): There is a variation in "Small Friends" in which Lawrence plays a saxophone.


    Newspaper Comics 

  • The Wharf Revue 2019 had a sketch based on certain prominent incarcerated Australians (based on "The Cellblock Tango" from Chicago). The sketch opens with Cardinal George Pell sitting in his cell with his hands over his mouth making harmonica sounds. The prison governess enters and yells "You know the rules, Cardinal George! No playing imaginary musical instruments!".

    Video Games 
  • In America's Army if you shoot an instructor during the training missions the mission will end, the screen will fade to black and then reveal you to be in a jail cell with harmonica music playing in the background.
  • Kaori uses a flute to the same effect in Eien no Aselia.
  • In the game over screen of Donkey Kong Country 2, a harmonica plays over a shot of Diddy and Dixie in a jail cell.
  • Some of the background music of Red Dead Redemption includes harmonicas.
  • There is a hobo playing a harmonica at the run-down hobo camp in L.A. Noire.
  • In South Park: The Fractured but Whole, when Stephen grounds Butters for not having come home the previous night and the New Kid for not offering any sort of explanation for their behaviour, Butters produces a harmonica and sings a blues number about being grounded yet again.
  • The Escapists 2 features these in Social rooms. Interacting with them will show a short sequence of your character playing the harmonica.

  • Other instrument variation: In Girl Genius, a man in the cells under Sturmhalten is playing what appears to be a Captivity Mandolin, seen here.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons:
    • During an episode the kids are sent to school by a prison bus rather than the usual school bus, and look as if they were sent to an actual prison. One of the kids plays the harmonica.
    • Lampshaded in another episode, see the quote above.
    • When Bart gets sent to juvenile hall in "The Wandering Juvie", a harmonica is amongst the personal effects the warden confiscates. He plays a few bars of the traditional incarceration tune before putting it away.
  • The main character of Pizza Boy in: No Tip, a What A Cartoon! Show short, does this after being sent to jail for assaulting a couple who refused to give him a tip after he made a long and dangerous delivery. When the prison chaplain accidentally presses his Berserk Button by mentioning the word "tip", he swallows the harmonica before having another epic freakout.
  • Occurs in Jimmy Neutron: After being thrown into the brig by the Junkman, Sheen does this.
  • In an episode of ¡Mucha Lucha! Rikochet, Buena Girl, The Flea, and Pulgita are mistaken for being burglars and arrested on their way to a big match. While in jail, Pulgita is playing a harmonica.
  • Tiny Toon Adventures had Buster producing a harmonica after being framed for theft. When the guard gets sick of it, he stuffs it down Buster's throat (and he spends the next scene with a harmonica-shaped bulge in his neck).
  • South Park:
    • Played straight in the film version, although the harmonica player in question is Ike the baby.
    • And again in "Whale Whores", with Cartman playing the harmonica in question. "Oh, I'm in Japanese prison, lord, don't belong here, my eyes are round..."
    • In the season three episode "Jakovasaurous" which opens with the boys out camping, and Cartman playing a calm little tune on a harmonica. He then introduces a new song he just wrote; "I Hate You Guys" (which uses the opening chords from Bad to The Bone)
    Cartman: I hate you guys! *tune* You guys are assholes! *tune* Especially Kenny!
  • One episode of Home Movies has Brendan making a prison movie, in which he is making harmonica noises.
  • One episode of Daria featured Daria playing the harmonica while grounded. Her parents lift the grounding just so they don't have to listen to her play.
  • In an episode of Hanna-Barbera's Top Cat, the crew lands in jail. One pulls out a harmonica and begins to play: "What? They always play harmonica in prison movies!"
  • Played by the koala in the zoo/prison in The Life and Times of Juniper Lee episode "The Great Escape".
  • Played by one of the Sirrians when Glenn and Lincoln are locked up in the Pound in the Dogstar episode "The Beagle Has Landed".
  • Parodied in The Real Ghostbusters when the four guys are locked up in a ghost world prison.
    Peter: Whoever's playing the crummy harmonica, knock it off!
    Egon: Uh...Peter?
    Peter: What!?
    Egon: It's their version of elevator music.
  • In Zeke's Pad, Zeke's dad plays a harmonica when they are trapped inside the snowbound house in "The Artful Dodger". It gets stuck to his lips.
  • Invoked in one episode of American Dad! by Steve and Klaus after spending several days locked in a closet.
  • Used as BGM in a Family Guy episode where the four men are put into a chain gang.
  • In Phineas and Ferb, Dr. Diminutive plays one when he and Doofenshmirtz are thrown in a cell together in "Norm Unleashed". At the very end of the episode, Doof tells him to knock it off.
  • The opening of Cellbound has the jailbird protagonist playing a wistful tune, though just for show; as soon as nobody's looking he drops the harmonica and continues going over his escape plans.
  • Used in an episode of Johnny Test which used every prison gag in the book. Dukey even lampshades it.
    Dukey: It's in every great prison movie.
  • Looney Tunes: At the start of "D'Fightin' Ones."
  • Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends: Used with Coco in the episode "My So-Called Wife" when she, Mac, Bloo, and Mr. Herriman end up in jail for trespassing inside an elderly rich man's mansion.
  • The Snooper and Blabber short "Person to Prison" ends with the duo sentenced to jail, with Blabber playing the harmonica.
    Snooper: Hey Blab, do you think you'll learn to play that harmonica?
    Blabber: Well, I got 30 years to practice.
  • "The Penguins of Madagascar": Manfredi plays on one when is revealed, that he and Johnson are real and alive but captured in Seaville
  • "Bojack Horseman": part of the BGM in the episode where Todd goes to jail.
  • Parodied in the Sonic Boom episode, "In the Midnight Hour". Sticks ends up being arrested and betrayed by her own friends, ending up in jail with the typical harmonica in the background... which turns out to be a vinyl record she was playing to try and cheer herself up.
  • Happens in Johnny Bravo when Johnny becomes mayor (due to a bizarre clause in the town charter that says that the village idiot become mayor if the mayor and the town council become incapacitated by bad tuna) and drafts a law saying that it's now illegal for nerdy dweebs to be seen in public, leading to Carl getting tossed in prison. Cue him playing a harmonica in a jail cell with a pissed-off cellmate looking on.
  • In skit in the The Amazing World of Gumball episode "The Extras" features a bunch of criminals finding a way to pass time in the local jail by grooving out and starting a somber jail tune together. They start humming, then finger snapping, then lead up for one person to play a harmonica solo. The guy can't play the harmonica at all, and completely whiffs, but the others continue grooving to the mood.
  • In the Arthur episode, "To Tibble The Truth", Tommy and Timmy worry that they'll go to jail if they continue to lie. An Imagine Spot is then shown of Tommy playing the harmonica, until Timmy fights over it with him. The prisoner in the bunk above them then takes the harmonica from them and crushes it.
  • The Addams Family (1992) episode "Itt's Over" has Uncle Fester at one point use his nostrils to play the Addams Family theme song on the harmonica while he's in prison for killing Cousin Itt, which didn't really happen but Fester ended up in jail anyway because Norman Normanmeyer falsely accused him.
  • In the Captain Planet and the Planeteers episode "Jail House Flock", one scene has Captain Planet play the harmonica while passing the time in his cell.
  • Played with in PJ Masks: In "The Mountain Prisoner", when PJ Robot is imprisoned by Night Ninja, he can be seen making harmonica music and moving his hands as if he's playing a harmonica, but he doesn't actually hold one.
  • The Mickey MouseWorks short "Big House Mickey" has a quick scene of Mickey playing the harmonica while in jail.


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