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World’s Smallest Violin: Origin, Usage and Everything Else

While we may be a mainly informative website on musical instruments, violins and new technology instruments website, there is still room in everyone’s life for a little humour. If that humour is music-based or related, so much the better! To be fair, violin jokes are a little thin on the ground so we have to take what we can get. With that in mind, we though we would add a light-hearted piece that discusses the term ‘the world’s smallest violin’.

You’re probably already familiar with this sarcastic term.

We typically hear it when someone has shared a story expecting sympathy or pity and the other person rubs their thumb and forefinger together and says something like ‘See this? The world’s smallest violin and it’s playing your tune’. or ‘…and it’s playing just for you’, or ‘…and it’s playing just for <insert person / situation here>’

Here is the world’s smallest violin GIF it all it’s glory 😉 Find it on tenor here.


World’s Smallest Violin GIF

Use it and abuse it, but don’t be too harsh 🙂

The exact terminology differs depending on where in the world you live but the meaning is much the same.

The situation either didn’t warrant sympathy or something you did beforehand excluded any chance of being offered sympathy even if you deserve it!


There’s another popular meme which has been made popular by, funnily enough, Spongebob, where Mr Krabs tells Squidward: “Booo hoo, let me play you a sad song on the world’s smallest violin“.

And here is the MEME, using the above clip.

spongebob meme

Where did ‘the world’s smallest violin’ come from?

Nobody seems to know where the phrase ‘the world’s smallest violin’ comes from originally but there are a few theories.

Let’s just start with our own theory, which is the simplest and most obvious, without looking into any history at all. Although fiddles have a range of music they can play, they are often associated in people’s minds, especially in this context, with sad music.

So, the world’s smallest violin is like, yeah, I’m playing this sad music for you, but the amount of sympathy / empathy for your situation is “the world’s smallest”.

It’s really what makes most sense in the usage of this phrase, most especially if you have a listen to the video below (Hearts and Flowers), which is a very sombre piece of music. But there are plenty of other theories.

One goes back to 1891 while others are mainly from the 20th century.

The term is sometimes linked to the song ‘Hearts and Flowers’ which is a piece written and published in 1899. The saying seems to have come much later but there is a definite link.

Hearts and Flowers on violin was used as the soundtrack to a range of silent films. It was used so often in the context of mock sympathy that it was soon linked to that specific meaning. It is believed to be the progenitor of ‘Break out the violins’ which is also a sarcastic expression of sympathy.

Other theories range from an episode of MASH, the US TV show set during the Vietnam war and filmed in the seventies to an episode of the A Team which was filmed in the 1980s.

We think the phrase is much older than either of those but these two were perhaps the introduction of the phrase into common parlance and may be responsible for the wide acceptance of it in modern language.

Classic FM, a favourite website of ours agrees with the MASH theory but we do not think this was the origin of the saying.

Another theory is that American comedian and violinist Jack Benny took on the phrase and had a small violin made which he played on TV. We can find no evidence to back this claim up but it does pre-date MASH by a significant amount of time.

While MASH and The A Team were very popular TV series, it was perhaps Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Reservoir Dogs that catapulted the phrase into popular culture.

The scene is set in an American diner and includes a discussion about tipping the waitress (or not).

Steve Buscemi, Mr Pink in the movie plays the small violin and the thumb and forefinger movement in mock sympathy. While certainly not the first time it was used on popular culture, it was possibly the most widely watched.

It is also what has become the source for the most popular meme / GIF associated with the phrase.

Since those early appearances, the phrase ‘the world’s smallest violin’ has appeared regularly to portray the same mock sympathy or sarcasm as those early versions.

From Steppenwolf in 1974 to the book Wizard and Glass from Stephin King, Sabrina the Teenage Witch to the computer game World of Warcraft where there is an emote playing the smallest violin, the phrase is now a part of common usage across the world.


The real smallest violin

There are also two variants of a physical smallest violin. Sort of. One holds the Guinness World Record for the smallest playable violin.

The other is a Google gadget that lets you play the fiddle with your thumb and forefinger.

The world’s smallest violin is supposed to be this one according to Classic FM but there is no link to or from the Guinness World Records organisation to back it up.

This seems to be one of the many records that are not available on the website unfortunately. Either way, it’s still a small violin and this is exactly what the title of the YouTube video says.

As you can see from the video, it is still playable even if it doesn’t have the rich tones of a 4/4.

The other version uses Google’s Project Soli to create a tiny sensor chip that can detect movement and provide a response. In this case, the movement is to rub the forefinger and thumb together and the response is to play violin music out of a speaker.

The sensor plays a recorded piece and isn’t very portable but given the pace at which smartphones are evolving, I would expect to see an app version of this very soon.

Project Soli – World’s Tiniest Violin from Design I/O on Vimeo.

Arguably this isn’t an actual instrument but the result is still some violin music from a repetitive motion so the effect is kind of the same. A tenuous link we know but as this is a humorous piece anyway, we had nothing to lose!

Do you have any theories on the origin of the ‘the world’s smallest violin’? Tell us about them below if you do!

Sakari Oramo