Circus music

Entry of the Gladiators

The Circus Bee
Fillmore's "The Circus Bee" performed by the United States Marine Corps Band

Rolling Thunder
Fillmore's "Rolling Thunder" performed by the Ceremonial Brass of the United States Air Force.

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Circus music (also known as carnival music) is any sort of music that is played to accompany a circus, and also music written that emulates its general style. Popular music would also often get arranged for the circus band, as well as waltzes, foxtrots and other dances.


Although circuses have been in existence since the time of the ancient Romans, circus music first started as a performance by a fiddler or a flutist.[1] It was not until the twentieth century that circus music was performed by big bands. The first modern circus director and performer was Philip Astley (1742-1814), a veteran of the Seven Years' War and a skilled equestrian. With his horsemanship skills and the addition of jugglers, acrobats, and clowns, Astley opened Paris' first circus in 1782.[2] The first known composer of circus music was Charles Dibdin (1745 - 1814).[3] He was partners with Mr. Astley and was also the one who financed the theatre used for the royal circus.[4] Dibdin was a very well known composer in his time and had written hundreds of works before he decided to join Astley to work for the circus. He wrote all of the pieces used in the circus which were mostly intermezzos or comedy pieces. An ensemble of approximately sixty children was used as singers and dancers to perform the many pieces that he wrote for the circus, such as “The Graces,” and “Clump and Cudden,” and “Pandora,” which was arguably the most famous piece that was used in the circus because it was originally used in a popular puppet show that mocked contemporary figures of the time.[5]

Composition and usage

The most common type of circus music is the circus march, or screamer. It is characterized by a rapid-fire tempo - usually around 200 beats per minute - and melodies that contain showy features such as leaps, runs, and fanfares. It is difficult for "windjammers" (circus musicians) to play because of its fast tempo.

Marches served many purposes throughout the course of a circus. They were often used for grand entrances and exits, overtures and finales, acts featuring wild animals, or other daredevil-type acts. Circus marches are divided into "strains":

Xylophone-Solo in Souvenir de Cirque Renz by Gustav Peter

The galop is another popular form of circus music. Like the march, it is played at a fast, lively tempo and is primarily used for daredevil acts, such as trick-riding or other wild animal performances. Any performance or act that consisted of fast-paced tricks or stunts would probably have performed to a galop. The galop is typically written in 2/4 time and has a short length, but would only end when the ringmaster signaled the end of an act. If the act went longer, the galop could be extended by playing da capo.[7] One of the best-known examples is Gustav Peter's widely popular Memory of Circus Renz, which was published in 1894 with the title Souvenir de Cirque Renz. The piece was originally written for the xylophone.

Circus music catered to the needs of the different acts. For example, a high-flying, nimble trapeze act could be characterized by a dizzying galop or a graceful waltz. An act containing ferocious wild animals, such as lions, would probably use a march.


One of the most recognized pieces of circus music is Entrance of the Gladiators by Julius Fučík (1872 - 1916). Fučík wrote almost 300 marches and dances, and for that reason he is often referred to as “Bohemian Sousa.” Although his most well known piece is now famous in circus music, he did not compose with the intent of having his pieces played in a circus.[8] Another very famous piece of circus music that is very recognizable is "Barnum and Bailey's Favorite" by Karl King (1892 - 1971).[9] Unlike Fučík, King grew up performing circus music joining Robinson's Famous Circus at the age of 19 as a baritone player. During that time circus music needed its own style because modern music did not fit with most of the acts that the circus performed. This led to his quick rise in popularity as a circus music composer for circuses everywhere.[10] Also, "Sobre las Olas", or "Over the Waves", is a popular waltz used during trapeze shows. Mistakenly thought to be a waltz by Strauss, it was written by Mexican composer Juventino Rosas. Many other composers were well known for writing screamers, among them Fred Jewell and Henry Fillmore. One piece, however, that was never normally played was John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever". Instead, it was used in emergencies, such as animals getting loose, to help signify to workers that something was wrong.[11]

Music that imitates or evokes the sound of the circus has also been written, often showing up in film scores, some dedicated to the subject and some not. Jerry Goldsmith famously wrote a theme for the movie Gremlins in such a style, which influenced the film makers to an extent.[12]

Other bands and musicians who employ circus music in their work include Danny Elfman, Tom Waits, Mr. Bungle, the Dickies, Legendary Shack Shakers and Kaizers Orchestra. The music genre Dark Cabaret is heavily based on elements from circus music and from burlesque and vaudeville influences . Popular artists within the genre include The Tiger Lillies and Circus Contraption. Punk Cabaret is also influenced from circus music. Artists include The Dresden Dolls, Amanda Palmer, Emilie Autumn.


As the styles of circus music have changed, so has the instrumentation. With the nineteenth century came the introduction of brass bands. String instruments were no longer used in these "traditional" circus bands to make "traditional" circus music, which is defined by Merle Evans as music that is brighter in tone than other music.[13]

Sounds of cornets, trumpets, trombones, French horns, baritones, and tubas were able to reach far and wide, signaling to entire towns that the circus was around. Drums were also added to the circus bands and although saxophones have been arguable, they were frequently used as well.[1] The calliope, built by Joshua C. Stoddard in 1856, was also used by the circus. Not a part of the circus band, it is a sometimes called a “circus piano” and is played like a piano, but powered by a steam boiler. Its sound can carry as far as nine miles.[14]

Present-day circus music varies widely in instrumentation, style and form. It often incorporates the use of electric instruments and synthesizers alongside the more traditional instruments.[1]


  1. 1 2 3 "What Defines Circus Music? | Center Ring Circus Band News". Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  2. "History of the Circus | In The Ring | Circus | PBS". Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  3. "Charles Dibdin | biography - British composer, author, actor and manager". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  4. "SHORT HISTORY OF THE CIRCUS - Circopedia". Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  5. "The Contemplator's Biography Charles Dibdin". Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  6. "The Circus March | Center Ring Circus Band News". Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  7. "The musical "Galop" used in Circus Performances | Center Ring Circus Band News". Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  8. "Julius Fucik | Biography & History | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  9. "Karl L. King - Our Composers - C. L. Barnhouse Company". Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  10. "Karl King Biography". Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  11. Under the Big Top
  12. DVD commentary; Steven Spielberg presents Gremlins. Special edition. Warner Home Video, 2002.
  13. "The Circus in America". Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  14. "Mechanical Music Digest - Calliope". Retrieved 2015-10-13.
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