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Music Jargon: why are bad notes "Clams"?

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by mambo4, Jun 13, 2010.

  1. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    anybody know why the slang "Clams" is used for hitting a wrong note?
  2. jkramer5


    Jul 14, 2008
    Fairfield, CA
    Ever smelled a bad clam? It's pretty bad lol.
  3. somegeezer


    Oct 1, 2009
    Never heard that term in my life.
  4. JimK


    Dec 12, 1999
    ...then you've been lucky.
    Or is it an American slang term?
  5. Never heard that term either, maybe it is more common over in the US.
  6. Because "lobster" sounds silly.
  7. Dogbertday

    Dogbertday Commercial User

    Jul 10, 2007
    SE Wisconsin
    Blaine Music LLC
    the same reason the person playing it is a lizard
  8. standupright


    Jul 7, 2006
    Phoenix, AZ
    Brownchicken Browncow
    possibly a derivative or shortened version of "clamor" - to utter noisily
  9. jaywa


    May 5, 2008
    Iowa City, IA
    I've heard the term ... in fact, played a few "clam bakes" in my day.

    I always thought it derived from "clam up", i.e., a lot of times when a wrong note is played it's only sort of halfway squeezed out.

    Although personally I tend to play my mistakes at full volume. :D
  10. bongomania

    bongomania Gold Supporting Member Commercial User

    Oct 17, 2005
    PDX, OR
    owner, OVNIFX and OVNILabs
    I have heard it used plenty of times, and I always figured it was as jaywa said, derived from "clam up" i.e. to abruptly close or shut up.

    Could also be from "clang" like the dissonance of a wrong note?
  11. Richland123


    Apr 17, 2009
    I never heard that term either. I always call them "clunker" notes.
  12. Jazzdogg

    Jazzdogg Less barking, more wagging!

    Jul 29, 2006
    San Diego, CA
    The term is at least 50 years old, because I recall laughing uproariously the first time I heard it used, and I was in kindergarten at the time.

    I wonder if the language mavens on the "A Way With Words" radio show know the answer?
  13. emor


    May 16, 2004
    Check out "Buddy Rich Bus Tapes" on You Tube.
    (warning: F-bombs all over the place).
  14. f.clef

    f.clef Supporting Member

    Dec 4, 2007
    Clams == loogies; i.e., sputum through a horn. Not good; an uncontrolled disturbance; bad discipline.
  15. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    that makes sense to me. I did pick up the term from the horn section.

    and plegm boogers do look like clam innards...
  16. Dirk Diggler

    Dirk Diggler Supporting Member

    Mar 3, 2004
    Anytown USA
    I had always assumed it was because of the shape, not round and crisp like printed music, more of a blob shapeless thing. :)

    Do you know what a group of clams is called?

    Answer: Schmuck

    That may lead to a whole other conversation.

    By the way that was from a book called "An Exaltation of Larks", a book that describes what groups of animals are called, you know the generic Pride or Lions, Murder of Crows, Gaggle of Geese, etc..
    I just had to share that bizarre little factoid.
  17. DreadRaver


    Nov 19, 2008
    Associate of Cusack Music / Mojo Hand FX
    I've mostly heard it used in conjunction with the verb "to blow", as in "I'm afraid I blew a few clams in that intro."
    So, I believe it probably originated with horn players.

    And I know Mike Watt uses the phrase often and he's got the love for Coltrane, so that's a little more circumstantial evidence for you.
  18. emor


    May 16, 2004

    Just say oops.
    Dear Word Detective: In musicians’ parlance, especially trumpet players, the word “clam” is used to refer to a missed note. A “clambake” is used to refer to a concert, piece, or part of a work with a LOT of wrong notes. I’ve no idea if this has any relation to “clam up” of the early 20th century or the use of “clambake” to refer to people smoking pot in a closed automobile. The trumpet player email list will be most appreciative. — Tim Phillips.

    “Clam” is an interesting word. Most uses in English refer back in some way to “clam” as the name for the shellfish (as Merriam-Webster puts it, “any of numerous edible marine bivalve mollusks living in sand or mud”). The origin of “clam,” however, lies far from the beach, in the prehistoric Germanic root word “klam,” which meant “to press or squeeze together” and also gave us “clamp.” It was the tightly clamped shut shell of the aquatic “clam” that gave it its name.

    “Clam” has developed numerous slang and figurative uses over the years, from “to clam up” meaning to remain silent, lips pressed together like a clam’s shell, to “clam” as jocular slang for a dollar, probably from a supposed ancient use of clams as currency. About once a week I’m asked for the origin of “Happy as a clam,” a saying folks find mysterious only because it is rarely quoted in its full form, “Happy as a clam at high tide,” i.e., when it is least likely to be discovered by predators. “Clambake,” originally a beach party featuring clams “baked” in open pits, has also been used as a sardonic term for any fancy social gathering (as well as, I’ll take your word for it, that ritual of “doobie parking” where participants presumably get “baked” in a car closed up like a clam).

    The likening of a closed mouth, or the human mouth in general, to the bivalve sort of “clam” may underlie the use of “clam” to mean a missed or flubbed note, especially if the term originated in connection with wind instruments. This usage dates back to at least the early 1950s and since then has been applied to an error in any sort of musical or theatrical performance (”Bing Crosby … always said, ‘Leave the clams in, let ‘em know I’m human,’” New York Times, 1991). Perhaps the “error” sense of the term lies in the failure of one’s “clam,” or mouth, to perform correctly.

    But another, and to my mind stronger, possibility is that the “mistake” sense of “clam” derives from a completely different “clam.” In the 18th century the sound of two bells (in a bell tower) rung simultaneously (usually a mistake by the bell ringer) was known as a “clam.” This “clam” was probably “echoic” in origin, intended to mimic the dissonant, unpleasant sound itself (the same way “clang” and “slam” were formed), and actually appears to be the source of our modern “clamor,” meaning a jumbled roar of noises or voices. It seems entirely logical that “clam” as a term for mistake in a bell tower could have become a generalized musicians’ term for any sort of embarrassing flub in a performance.
  19. MatticusMania

    MatticusMania LANA! HE REMEMBERS ME!

    Sep 10, 2008
    Pomona, SoCal
    Ive never heard that term. The youth, these days, call it hotboxing.
  20. f.clef

    f.clef Supporting Member

    Dec 4, 2007
    Hmmmm... interesting. Word Detective struggles mightily. It seems entirely logical that "word detective" is clueless.

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