In Real Life, conducting an orchestra is a highly stylized endeavor. A conductor has to make sure the orchestra plays in the correct tempo, and that important soloists come in on time. They are also generally responsible for setting the entire tone, speed and style of the piece being played. They do so through the swinging of a baton and through the use of meaningful and highly nuanced gestures. It is up to the members of the orchestra to interpret the movements and follow along with the tempo set by the conductor.
Of course, in cartoons, things run a little differently. Conductors, instead of merely guiding an orchestra, have the godlike ability to create sound through the merest flick of their hands — as if THEY were the source of the music, not the orchestra. Instead of using their batons to indicate the beat patterns that an orchestra should follow (as most Real Life conductors do), a cartoon conductor will simply wave the baton around in a spasmodic, dramatic — and completely random — fashion and music will miraculously appear. If the conductor stops moving, the music will stop abruptly as well (as if someone had hit the "pause" button on the orchestra). Woe betide the concert players if an annoying fly gets in the way.
Perhaps the most ridiculous example of Cartoon Conductor Omnipotence occurs in instances where the conductor's sheet music gets switched on him (without his notice) in mid-performance. Within seconds, the orchestra will stop playing "The 1812 Overture" and start playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame", leaving the hapless conductor to wonder what's going on, and why all the notes on his sheet music suddenly look different. Of course, it would make perfect sense for an orchestra to switch songs if all of the sheet music for all of its members had been instantaneously changed, but in most cases, it's only the conductor who gets the old switcheroo pulled on him. How each individual member of the orchestra could possibly know what notes to play just by watching him is never adequately explained.
- The aforementioned epic-scale Script Swap actually happens in a Donald Duck comic, when a bunch of flies get into the orchestra room and the conductor starts wildly attacking them. In the meanwhile, other flies actually sit on the players' sheets, causing them to misread the notes. The funniest part? The composer of the very song they are playing is in the audience.
- A single-panel comic in The New Yorker shows what's on a conductor's sheet music:
- Wave wand around
- Turn and bow
- A newspaper cartoon shows the conductor concentrating intently on his music stand, which is showing not notes but the poses he needs to take, wand orientation and all.
- In the 1960 Jerry Lewis movie Bellboy he does this without an orchestra present and still creates music.
- At one point in the Marx Brothers film, A Night at the Opera, Harpo and Chico switch out a page from the overture to Il Travatore for the music to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game", complete with Chico and Harpo throwing a baseball in the pit and Groucho acting as a peanut vendor in the audience.
- Something similar happens in the comedy Brain Donors (Fittingly, as it's a semi-remake of the above film), where changed sheet music (which may just be a distraction) and one of the protagonists lighting the conductor's baton on fire (causing him to wave it crazily to put it out), causes the whole orchestra to rapidly speed up their music like they're a giant record player. Why is this done? To make the ballet dancer on stage throw up.
- In the finale of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film Strike Up The Band Mickey's character leads all the orchestras combined in a big production number, for which nobody has any sheet music.
- In the Norman Wisdom film One Good Turn, there is a scene where Wisdom's character conducts an orchestra, which exactly reflects his movements.
- In the Mr. Bean episode "Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean", Bean conducts a Salvation Army brass band playing "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen" using a highly complex series of gestures, including fast twitchy movements to indicate a light tempo, sweeps for a more Wagnerian feel, and a funky pace to turn it into a jazz number. It culminates in him modifying the volume by making a gesture indicative of turning down a volume dial on a radio, making the band stop playing. He continues conducting, but nothing is heard until he remembers to turn the band on again.
- In the Grand Finale of Chuck Jeffster! takes over an orchestra concert with a cover of A-Ha's "Take On Me." Morgan grabs the baton from the befuddled conductor and starts waving it around, causing the orchestra to join the song perfectly.
- In the special Disney's Young People's Guide to Music: A Tune for a Toon, Roger Rabbit asks to give conducting the orchestra a try, claiming he knows what to do — "wave the stick!". When he demonstrates (using a stick much larger than the conductor's baton), the orchestra deliberately responds with tuneless random noises. The real conductor then explains how it's done.
- On The Colgate Comedy Hour, a common Martin and Lewis sketch would involve Dean trying to sing a number while Jerry clowns about as he "conducts" the orchestra. (Their musical director Dick Stabile can sometimes be seen off to the side actually conducting the orchestra.)
- At the top of Act Two of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2013 West End musical), the entr'acte starts out uneventfully...but as the orchestra kicks into the final stretch, a platform rises out of the pit, revealing Willy Wonka as the madly gesticulating conductor. By the end, he is checking his pocketwatch — and those sitting in the front rows can hear him shouting to the orchestra to play faster (this Wonka is obsessed with keeping to a schedule).
- The original Magic Kingdom attraction The Mickey Mouse Revue stars Mickey Mouse as the conductor of an orchestra full of Disney characters.
- Its Spiritual Successor, Mickey's PhilharMagic, features Mickey again playing conductor, using a magic wand and his Sorcerer's hat to control an orchestra of living instruments. The show revolves around Donald Duck's attempts to lead the orchestra.
- The titular baton in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker combines this with Music Magic.
- Deliberately invoked in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, where Sora spends an entire level searching for a magical power that specifically allows him to conjure music from thin air just by waving his weapon like a baton.
- Sigma from Overwatch makes several gestures of a conductor in some animations, presumably conducting the melody he hears in his head.
- Looney Tunes:
- Bugs Bunny himself was fond of the Omnipotent Cartoon Conductor act. "Baton Bunny" is a classic example of this and a rare example of a dialogueless Bugs Bunny cartoon. The page image above comes from another, "Long-Haired Hare", in which he impersonates Leopold Stokowski.
- The Merrie Melodies short "Rhapsody in Rivets" has a building foreman acting as a conductor, with all the workers laboring to the tune of Listz's "Hungarian Rhapsody".
- The Animaniacs short "Three Tenors and You're Out" subverts this by having Slappy and Skippy switch all the sheet music (to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"), and Slappy taking over the role of the conductor.
- One Tex Avery short, "Magical Maestro", featured a magician who switched places with a conductor so he could get revenge on a performer during a concert. Since the magician was using a magic wand for a baton, he not only had Cartoon Conductor power over the orchestra, he could also physically change the performer into whatever embarrassing form he wanted.
- There was a late-issue The Fox and the Crow cartoon directed by John Hubley, "The Magic Fluke", that used roughly the same format, with a pompous conductor, Fox, getting a baton from Crow, only to discover it is actually a magic wand. As you might guess, the wand keeps changing its shape and the music changes tempo to fit the conductor's angered gesturing. At one point the wand becomes a Yale pennant, and the orchestra immediately switches to playing the Yale fight song.
- Tom and Jerry: One short ("Carmen Get It", directed by Gene Deitch) takes the "switching sheet music" gag to ridiculous extremes. As Tom tries to conduct an orchestra, he fails to realize that his sheet music is actually a blank page covered by an army of ants. As the ants repeatedly switch into different patterns, the orchestra correspondingly switches to a random song, causing Tom much confusion. Tom first enters the concert in that cartoon as a musician trying to flush Jerry out of a hole so he can capture him, only to migrate to the conductor's stand later, much to the ire of the actual conductor. Tom actually was employed as a conductor in 1950's Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl. At one point, Jerry crawls into the actual conductor's suit, making him dance around in a way vaguely resembling the Twist and causing the orchestra to play in an appropriate tempo.
- The Mickey Mouse cartoon "The Band Concert" features several variations. First, Mickey's band, playing the William Tell Overture, is distracted by Donald Duck playing "Turkey in the Straw" on the fife, and as the two pieces are similar, they start following Donald instead. Later, Mickey gets ice-cream down his collar, and his attempts to shimmy it out leads the orchestra to play belly-dancing music. Then a bee appears and Mickey swats at it, with the music changing tempo accordingly. For the climax, the entire orchestra is picked up by a tornado (just as the storm section of the overture is playing) while Mickey continues to conduct as if nothing has happened. Mickey then motions the band to stop... and the tornado stops as well, depositing the musicians back on the ground.
- Based on the Literature example above, Chuck Jones' Animated Adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth, Chroma the Great is a conductor who determines not music, but all the colors of the world; when the protagonist Milo uses his baton, he wreaks havoc on the sunrise he is attempting to conduct.
- The Pink Panther short "Pink Plunk Plink" in which the Panther keeps sneaking into the orchestra pit and playing "The Pink Panther Theme" on various instruments before being ejected by the conductor. Eventually, he switches the conductor's score, and after dispatching of the conductor, the Panther conducts a full orchestral version of the theme. Much to the delight of the only person in the audience: Henry Mancini.
- On SpongeBob SquarePants, Squidward is writing a concert piece but keeps getting distracted by SpongeBob and Patrick making noise next door. He finishes the piece, but when he performs it he discovers that he had inadvertently written in his neighbors' noises as well. Sure enough, SpongeBob and Patrick are there in the orchestra, reenacting their actions from the day before, as if summoned up by Squidward's music.
- In Camp Lazlo, Edward conducts a belching orchestra in front of his brothers, and meant for Clam to start singing operatically until Lazlo makes the piece more fun.