Classical Music Used in Cartoons: The Best of Both Worlds

A look at how classical music is used in cartoons and how it can be the best of both worlds for kids and adults.


Since the dawn of television, cartoons have been a staple of American culture. Many of these cartoons, especially those produced by Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Studios, are known for their use of classical music. While some pieces are played for comic effect, others are used to set the tone or mood of a scene.

Over the years, dozens of classical pieces have been used in cartoons. Here are just a few examples:

“The Barber of Seville” by Gioachino Rossini
This opera buffa classic was used in several Warner Bros. cartoons, including “The Rabbit of Seville” (1950), “Bartholomew vs. the Wheel” (1955), and “Rhapsody Rabbit” (1946). In the latter cartoon, Bugs Bunny plays a virtuoso concert pianist who is being chased by Elmer Fudd. As he runs away, Bugs intermittently plays snippets of the piece on a pipe organ, much to Fudd’s frustration.

“William Tell Overture” by Gioachino Rossini
This well-known overture was used in many Disney shorts, including “Musical farmer” (1933), “The Wise Little Hen” (1934), and “The Band Concert” (1935). It was also used in some Warner Bros. cartoons, such as “Theomorphism” (1965) and “AmericanHistoryX-Y2K” (1999). In the latter cartoon, Daffy Duck is hired to change the ending of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony so that it will be more uplifting. When he is unable to do so, he resorts to playing Rossini’s overture instead.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor
This iconic work has been used in many cartoons, including “Walt Disney’s Fantasia” (1940), “Carnegie Hall Symphony Orchestra plays Peter and The Wolf/Beethoven Lives Upstairs/Casey at The Bat”” (1981), and “”Bartok The Magnificent”” (1999). In the latter cartoon, Bartok the Bat helps lead an orchestra through Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony while fending off attacks from Stravinsky the Cat.

A Brief History of Classical Music in Cartoons

Classical music has been used in cartoons for nearly as long as the medium has existed. Early examples date back to the 1920s, when Walt Disney and his team used classical pieces to set the tone for their first few cartoons. The use of classical music in cartoons continued throughout the years, with some of the most popular and iconic pieces becoming synonymous with specific characters or scenes.

Early Use of Classical Music in Cartoons

Some of the earliest examples of classical music in cartoons date back to the 1930s. When animations started to include sound, producers began using snippets of pre-existing classical pieces to provide an air of sophistication or simply to fill up space. For example, in early Disney cartoons like ” Three Little Pigs” (1933) and “The Goddess of Spring” (1934), characters can be heard humming along to well-known melodies by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, respectively.

This trend continued throughout the golden age of animation, with popular classics like “The Nutcracker Suite” appearing in Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940) and “The Rite of Spring” being used to score the dinosaurs’ movements in Fantasia’s successor, “The Fantasia 2000 Waltz.” Shere Khan’s entrance in 1967’s “The Jungle Book” was also accompanied by a few bars from Johann Strauss II’s famous “Blue Danube Waltz.”

In more recent years, composers have continued to draw inspiration from the great masters of classical music. For example, John Williams’ score for 1984’s “Thedrake Chronicles” pays tribute to Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, while Alan Menken’s work on 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” was heavily inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach.

With such a long history of classical music being used in cartoons, it’s no wonder that so many iconic pieces have become synonymous with the medium. From Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony being used to scoring Looney Tunes’ Road Runner chasing after Wile E. Coyote, to Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” giving an epic feel to countless action sequences, these pieces of classical music have become an integral part of what makes cartoons so special.

The Golden Age of Classical Music in Cartoons

Classical music and cartoons have been linked together since the early days of animation. Walt Disney was one of the first to use classical music in his cartoons, and the practice soon became commonplace.

The Golden Age of Classical Music in Cartoons began in the 1930s and lasted until the early 1960s. Some of the most famous cartoons from this era, such as Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes (1930-1969), featured classical music prominently.

During this period, many well-known pieces of classical music were used in cartoons for the first time, including compositions by Johann Strauss II, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Modest Mussorgsky, Claude Debussy, and Richard Wagner. These pieces became so associated with cartoons that they are still frequently used today.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in using classical music in cartoons. Cartoon Network’s popular series Steven Universe (2013-present) features an eclectic mix of classical music, including works by Beethoven, Bach, and Chopin. And the 2016 Academy Award-nominated film Loving Vincent (2017) uses pieces by Frédéric Chopin throughout its beautiful rotoscope animation.

With its ability to evoke emotion and create a sense of atmosphere, it’s easy to see why classical music remains such a popular choice for animators today.

Contemporary Use of Classical Music in Cartoons

Since the early days of animation, classical music has been used extensively in cartoons. In addition to being a source of great entertainment, classical music can also be used to communicate a range of emotions, from excitement and joy to suspense and fear.

One of the earliest examples of classical music in cartoons is the 1928 short film “Steamboat Willie,” which featured a number of pieces by German composer Johann Strauss II. In more recent years, a number of popular cartoons have relied heavily on classical music to set the tone and create an unforgettable experience for viewers.

Some notable examples include “The Simpsons” (which has featured works by Beethoven, Brahms, Rossini, and many others), “Adventure Time” (which has used pieces by Chopin, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky), and “South Park” (which has used works by Bach, Vivaldi, and Wagner).

With its ability to evoke strong emotions and convey complex ideas, it’s no wonder that classical music continues to be such a popular choice for use in cartoons today.

The Benefits of Classical Music in Cartoons

Many people believe that classical music is boring, but it can actually be quite interesting. Classical music can be used in cartoons to provide a more relaxing and sophisticated atmosphere. It can also help to improve the quality of the animation.

Enhances the Storytelling

Many cartoons score their scenes with classical music in order to intensify the emotion or action taking place on the screen. The famous “running scene” from Tom and Jerry is a great example of how music can add excitement and drama to a scene. In this case, the cartoon is using the jarring and chaotic sound of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to sped up the pace and add to the sense of urgency.

Other times, classical music is used to create a more whimsical or light-hearted mood. The Pink Panther is well-known for using Henry Mancini’s laid-back and jazzy theme song to set the tone for the bumbling antics of its titular character. And who could forget the use of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” in Bugs Bunny’s “Rabbit of Seville” cartoon? The mix of highbrow classical music with slapstick humor is a perfect example of how classical music can enhance storytelling in cartoons.

Connects with the Emotions

Classical music used in cartoons creates an emotional connection with the viewer. The music can be used to create a feeling of suspense, excitement, or even happiness. When used correctly, it can enhance the emotional impact of a scene and help the viewer connect with the characters on a deeper level.

Appeals to a Wide Audience

Classical music is often used in cartoons to great effect. The use of such music can wide appeal to a wide audience, across age and gender demographics. Studies have shown that the majority of people say that they enjoy listening to classical music, and that it makes them feel more relaxed and cultured.

In particular, the use of classical music in cartoons can help to engage younger viewers, who may not otherwise be interested in the genre. The familiarity of the music can also help to keep viewers engaged, even if they are not particularly interested in the plot or characters.

Overall, the use of classical music in cartoons can be a great way to broaden the appeal of the genre and reach a wider audience.

The Best of Both Worlds

Classical music is often used in cartoons and it is often used to make a scene more comical, increase the tension, or make it more tragic. It is also used to make a character seem more intelligent or cultured. In some cases, it is used because it is a recognizable tune that the audience will know.

The Simpsons

The Simpsons is an American animated television sitcom created by Matt Groening for the Fox Broadcasting Company. The series is a satirical depiction of working-class life, epitomized by the Simpson family, which consists of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. The show is set in the fictional town of Springfield and parodies American culture and society, television, and the human condition.

One of the unique aspects of The Simpsons is the use of classical music throughout the series. Composer Danny Elfman wrote the show’s infamous theme tune, and many other classical pieces have been used as incidental music or diegetic music (music that can be heard by characters within the show).

Some of the most famous classical pieces used in The Simpsons include:

Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” – used in many episodes, including when Homer tries to impress Marge with his “knowledge” of classical music
Beethoven’s “Für Elise” – used in several episodes, most notably when Lisa falls in love with a jazz musician
Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” – used in several episodes featuring ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev
Bizet’s “Carmen Suite No. 1” – used in an episode where Lisa becomes a bullfighter
Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” – used in an episode where Homer becomes a barber

Pink Panther

The Pink Panther is a 1963 cartoon series by Hanna-Barbera. The title character, Pink Panther, is a pink anthropomorphic cat with a French accent. The show was one of the first cartoon series to be created for television. It was also one of the first to use classical music as part of its soundtrack. The most famous piece of music used in the series is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite”. Other pieces used include Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5”.

Tom and Jerry

Tom and Jerry is a staple of classic cartoon television. The show is known for its slapstick humor, exaggerated dialogue, and of course, the accompanying classical music.

While the show does feature some original music composed specifically for it, a majority of the songs used are well-known classical pieces. This includes works by Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, and many others.

The use of classical music in Tom and Jerry is often cited as one of the reasons for the show’s timeless appeal. The songs add an element of sophistication to the otherwise chaotic proceedings, and help to create an atmosphere that is both light-hearted and fun.

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