Carl Stalling: Sympathetic Magic in Looney Tunes Music

Sympathetic Magic

A primitive or magical ritual using objects or actions resembling or symbolically associated with the event or person over which influence is sought (source)


Radishes purify the blood and improve heart health. 


Walnuts are high in omega-3 fatty acids that promote brain health. 

This principle of sympathetic resonance is known as the Doctrine of Signatures in Chinese medicine. An intrinsic similarity in visual appearance overlaps with biological synergy. Walnuts look like brains and are good for the brain. Beets looks like hearts and are rich in blood-building iron. There are many examples like this in the world of folk medicine.

Another example of sympathetic magic is what you might think of as the Voodoo Doll approach. To make the doll work, the witch needs something from the person’s body, like sweat, saliva, blood, nail clippings, or hair.


A lock of hair from a powerful person confers power to its new owner


“Borrowed Music” and Talismanic Magic



Carl Stalling, Looney Tunes Composer


Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling wrote around 600 pieces of music during his time with Warner Brothers. He is considered one of the most innovative and influential individuals in the history of animated film scoring.

Stalling’s signature compositional style was a jumpy moment-by-moment blend of all popular genre of music at the time, including themes from around the world. Sometimes he drew upon already-existing themes from other popular works to convey an idea for his own cartoon’s script.


This is what I mean by talismanic sympathetic music-magic. Stalling deciphered the “thumb print” of other iconic works and created his own arrangements of them to avoid copyright law. Each “lock of hair” he took from an earlier cartoon theme could be used to enhance the power of his own ritual; that is, of course, the creation of the cartoon. (for more on Carl Stalling’s use of animation music cliches, click here)

…The quickest way for him to write a musical score was to simply look up some music that had the proper name. If there was a lady dressed in red, he’d always play “The Lady in Red“. If somebody went into a cave, he’d play “Fingal’s Cave“. If we were doing anything about eating, he’d do “A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich and You“. I had a bee one time, and my God, if he didn’t go and find a piece of music written in 1906 or something called “I’m a Busy Little Bumble Bee”.- Chuck Jones on Carl Stalling

Carl Stalling knew that one of the easiest ways to illicit a response in the viewer was through reference to a tried and true, pre-existing work; this is consistent with the magical notion of sympathetic resonance. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, he would use musical signifiers to fill out certain scenes. If a child is being rocked to sleep in its cradle, Stalling would probably have the violin section play Rock-a-Bye-baby, and then quickly jump to the next scene.

Like magic, the orchestra jumps around in a frenzy that synchronizes perfectly with the images on screen. Imagine the level of immersive fantasy that this show would have provided children when it first aired back in the mid-1940’s. Stalling and Jones, along with the rest of the team, successfully conjured a synesthetic imaginal landscape of such power that it retains popularity even today, seventy years later.

Check out the following clip called Skeleton Dance and listen carefully to the music. The dynamics are precisely timed to match up with moments in the animation. Due to limitations in technology, these compositions had to be played live. I especially enjoy that the skeletons play on each others bones like xylophones.



“Q: Could you tell us about the music you did for The Skeleton Dance (1929), the first of the Silly Symphonies?

Carl Stalling: It was mostly original; that was forty years ago, and I can’t remember if I used anything else or not. But it wasn’t Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, although some writers have said it was.” – (source)


12-Tone Chromatic Scale

The Skeleton Key Signature


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