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Captivity Harmonica

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Nobody knows the trouble he's seen. Except for this little beauty.

[prisoner plays harmonica]
Homer: That's sorta nice. What're you in for?
Prisoner: Atmosphere.

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.

Often Truth in Television, as harmonicas are among the few musical instruments to find their way in from "outside", either smuggled in as contraband or simply allowed in by the guards (as its small size makes it unlikely to be usable as a tool of escape, an Improvised Weapon, or a component of some other illicit device they don't want the prisoners building). And when you have that much empty time, you may as well learn to play it, and learn to play it well.

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 Works 
  • Socrates does this while jailed in Calvin & Hobbes: The Series.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In This Bites!, when Nami and Vivi are locked up during the G-8 arc, Soundbite pipes in harmonica music to Vivi's irritation. Upon being told to knock it off, he instead opts to play "Jailhouse Rock".

    Films — Animated 
  • Peter in The Camel Boy, after he was imprisoned in an Arabian jail for sneaking into the country.
  • 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.
  • The fish in the pound does this in the Shaun the Sheep movie.
  • In The Simpsons Movie, Dr. Hibbert briefly plays the harmonica while trapped under the dome.
  • Ike plays a harmonica while hiding in the attic in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Parodied in Dog Gone Trouble. When the dogs are shown in the pound, one appears to be playing a harmonica. When asked where he got it, he reveals that he's just making the sounds with his mouth before proceeding to do a French horn sound.

    Films — Live Action 
  • Battle Beyond the Stars has a version that doesn't take place in prison, but has the same air of being resigned to one's fate. When the audience is introduced to Cowboy his spacecraft is being blasted by Jackers aiming to wear down his shields so they can incinerate the pilot and make off with his cargo. Cowboy responds by playing his harmonica and laconically calling for help on the radio, which he clearly doesn't think is going to come until The Hero unexpectedly shows up. During the eponymous battle, Cowboy's spaceship is fatally damaged and he plays the harmonica again while Coming in Hot.
  • 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 a variation, Luke plays the banjo (and sings "Plastic Jesus") while incarcerated in Cool Hand Luke. Another prisoner, played by a young Harry Dean Stanton, has an acoustic guitar, and can frequently be heard playing old gospel and folk songs in the background.
  • 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.
  • In Fled, Dodge (Stephen Baldwin) and Piper (Laurence 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 mouth harp when he and Fred are falsely arrested.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Used poignantly in the World War I film The Grand Illusion when Maréchal, a French prisoner of war in solitary confinement, is given a harmonica by a German guard after pleading for human connection.
  • In More Dead Than Alive, one of the prisoners watching the executions is playing a harmonica. This serves as a diegetic soundtrack for the hangings.
  • 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 
  • In Police Academy, Larvell Jones uses his own voice to imitate a harmonica while held at a police station.
  • Horror film Prison has a whole captivity band which appears couple of times.
  • In Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, our eponymous 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Super Mario Bros. (1993): 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.
  • 20,000 Years in Sing Sing: Hype, who is already on death row when Tommy is sent there, plays "Happy Days Are Here Again" and other tunes on his harmonica. As he's being taken away to the chair, Hype laments that he was finally getting good on the harmonica and could make his way through tunes without making mistakes.

  • 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.
  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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?
    Cory: You don't play the harmonica when you're happy.
  • 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.
  • In Drake & Josh, Josh plays one in a jail cell. The prisoner next to him crushes it and then gives it back.
  • Farscape: In "...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!
  • Played on Have I Got News for You (and surprisingly well) by outgoing former MP, Lembit Opik, in mourning for his former employment.
  • 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 Married... with Children, when Buck runs away and ends up in the pound, it's very prison-ish, complete with harmonica-playing pooch.
  • 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 probation officer (the first Victim of the Week) enters, he pays a mocking note.
  • 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.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000:
    • In the episode "Future War", when the hero and heroine of the movie 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.
  • Lampshaded in the NCIS episode "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".
  • The Outer Limits (1995): There is a variation in "Small Friends" when Lawrence plays a saxophone.
  • 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.
  • Spicks and Specks: Referenced in episode #11.5 when Adam reveals that there are more harmonicas sold worldwide than any other instrument:
    Nazeem Hussain: There's a lot of people in prison.
    Alan Brough: (sarcastically) In the 1930s! (beat) If you ever go to prison, you're going to be bitterly disappointed.
  • 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.
  • 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:
      Les: I just forgot — polar bears are attracted to strange noises.
    • In the Cook Islands episode, when he had to disassemble a harmonica to obtain material for one of his survival techniques (building a fishing spear), he called it "the ultimate sacrifice". Only to reveal that he'd also brought a ukulele that time.
  • The eponymous Titus plays one when he and his brother Dave are forced to do all of Papa Titus's chores.
  • 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 Twilight Zone (1959):


    Newspaper Comics 

  • In Hairspray, during "The Big Dollhouse" Act II opening, in which practically all the main characters are in jail, Penny briefly plays the harmonica.
  • 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.
  • In the game over screen of Donkey Kong Country 2, a harmonica plays over a shot of Diddy and Dixie in a jail cell.
  • Kaori uses a flute to the same effect in Aselia the Eternal - The Spirit of Eternity Sword.
  • The Escapists 2 features these in Social rooms. Interacting with them will show a short sequence of your character playing the harmonica.
  • There is a hobo playing a harmonica at the run-down hobo camp in L.A. Noire.
  • Some of the background music of Red Dead Redemption includes harmonicas.
  • 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.

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

    Web Videos 
  • In the song "Why Did I Say Okie Doki?" by The Stupendium, a musical adaptation of Doki Doki Literature Club!, after being trapped in a floating school by Monika, they play the harmonica to pass the time.
    Stupendium: So, I’m trapped here forever. Where’s my harmonica?

    Western Animation 
  • 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 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.
  • Invoked in one episode of American Dad! by Steve and Klaus after spending several days locked in a closet.
  • 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 Bump in the Night episode "Baby Jail", where Mr. Bumpy is stuck in a crib full of infants after becoming a baby himself and subsequently tries to help the tykes escape, features one of the babies playing a harmonica as a Funny Background Event.
  • Bojack Horseman: Part of the BGM in the episode where Todd goes to jail.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In the Clone High episode "The Principal Principle: Sub Zero to Sub Hero", Scudworth shows Joan and Abe some students who are in Clone Juvie. Among them is a clone of Stalin who is playing the harmonica.
  • In the C.O.P.S. (1988) episode "The Case of the Disappearing Dough" has Sundown playing the harmonica while waiting in a cell.
  • 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. Adding the prison ambience of this scene, Daria's bedroom has padded walls, railings, and cut off bars in the windows because it used to belong to schizophrenic shit-in.
  • Played by one of the Sirrians when Glenn and Lincoln are locked up in the Pound in the Dogstar episode "The Beagle Has Landed".
  • Used as BGM in a Family Guy episode where the four men are put into a chain gang.
  • 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.
  • One episode of Home Movies has Brendan making a prison movie, in which he is making harmonica noises.
  • Occurs in The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius: After being thrown into the brig by the Junkman, Sheen does this.
  • Happens in the Johnny Bravo episode "Hail to the Chump". 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), he 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.
  • 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.
  • Played by the koala in the zoo/prison in The Life and Times of Juniper Lee episode "The Great Escape".
  • Looney Tunes:
  • In the 1930 Mickey Mouse short The Chain Gang (which also featured the debut of Pluto), Mickey plays Vernon Dalhart's "The Prisoner Song" on the harmonica.
  • The Mickey MouseWorks short "Big House Mickey" has a quick scene of Mickey playing the harmonica while in jail.
  • 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.
  • The Penguins of Madagascar: Manfredi plays on one when it's revealed that he and Johnson are real and alive but captured in Seaville.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 the Rick and Morty episode "Promortyus," Morty plays a few notes on a harmonica when they're held in a cell on the Glorzos' planet. They later find out that the sound of terribly played harmonica makes Glorzos explode, which they take advantage of to escape.
  • 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.
    • In the "Tree House of Horror-V" segment "Nightmare Cafeteria," Bart, Lisa, and Milhouse sneak out of Mrs. Krabapple's class and as they make their way out of the school building they see some kids in cages, waiting to be slaughtered by the teachers, with one of them sadly playing a harmonica.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants: In "Biddy Sitting", when "Baby Prunes" put SpongeBob and Patrick in a cell made out of building blocks, Patrick can be seen playing a harmonica.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • In the Teacher's Pet episode "Escaping Dog Trick", Mrs. Helperman installs an electric fence to prevent Spot from leaving the house after mistakenly thinking that he had run away. At one point, Spot gets so depressed by the fence preventing him from leaving the house and attending school in his Scott disguise that he starts 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).
  • 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!"
  • 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 freak out.
  • 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.


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