Musical chairs is a game of elimination involving players, chairs, and music, with one fewer chair than players. When the music stops whichever player fails to sit on a chair is eliminated, with a chair then being removed and the process repeated until only one player remains.

It is also a metaphor for pointless shuffling of personnel in an organization; a fruitless, repeated scavenger hunt-like experience; and cyclic replacement of political leaders, as in multiple cabinet shuffles.

The game

Women playing musical chairs in Bangladesh

Musical chairs is a game where a number of chairs, one fewer than the number of players, are arranged facing outward with the players standing in a circle just outside the chairs. Usually music is played while the players in the circle walk in unison around the chairs. When the music stops each player attempts to sit down in one of the chairs. The player who is left without a chair is eliminated from the game. One chair is then removed/eliminated to ensure that there will always be one fewer chair than there are players. The music resumes and the cycle repeats until there is only one player left in the game, who is the winner.

"Musical chairs" has formerly been known as "Trip to Jerusalem" or "Going to Jerusalem"; this can also be the name of a game where there is only one stopping place, like a mat or rug, and the player who is on it or will pass over it next is out. Laura Lee Hope describes it under that name in chapter XIII of The Bobbsey Twins at School, as does John P. Marquand in Chapter XXXI of Wickford Point.


The end of a game of the all-inclusive version, in which everyone plays but nobody loses

Instead of using chairs, one version of the game has players sit on the ground when the music stops, the last to sit being eliminated. This is known as 'musical bumps'. In 'musical statues', players stop moving when the music stops, and stay standing in the same position. If any player is seen moving, they are out of the game.

In the all-inclusive version of "musical chairs" everyone plays but nobody loses, with one chair but no player eliminated each round until only one chair remains. All players have to "sit down" on the remaining chairs without their feet touching the floor.

A Cold Wind Blows is another non-competitive substitute for "musical chairs."

In the movie Amadeus, Mozart, his wife, and his father play a variant at a party where the eliminated person must do a stunt prescribed by the group. Mozart's father asks him to return to Salzburg with him, and when Mozart protests that this is an unfair penalty, he is asked to play the musical theme in the style of various other composers--including Salieri, who (unknown to Mozart) is present, wearing a mask. Mozart's Salieriesque rendition is rude and insulting, and Salieri leaves in a huff.

The modern term for this style of game is "Extreme Musical Chairs". Before the players sit down they must complete a task that the music person gives out before each round. For example before sitting in a chair, players must do five jumping jacks or run and touch the wall. Another variation is to have the players hop, jump, walk backwards, or dance while they are walking around the chairs.

As metaphor

The term "playing musical chairs" is also a metaphor for describing any activity where items or people are repeatedly and usually pointlessly shuffled among various locations or positions. It can also refer to a condition where people have to expend time searching for a resource, such as having to travel from one gasoline station to another when there is a shortage. It may also refer to political situations where one leader replaces another, only to be rapidly replaced due to the instability of the governing system (see cabinet shuffle).

In the musical Evita, during the song "The Art of the Possible", Juan Perón and a group of other military officers play a game of musical chairs which Perón wins, symbolizing his rise to power.

In mathematics, the principle that says that if the number of players is one more than the number of chairs, then one player is left standing, is the pigeonhole principle.

See also