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A Sale You Can Dance To: Entrainment, Flexibility, and Improvisation in the Metric Practice of the American Auctioneer


Although most auctioneers do not self-identify as musicians, the practice of auctioneering in the United States reveals a sophisticated musical approach to metric improvisation based on the establishment of musical expectation and the strategic thwarting of that expectation through flexible treatment of meter. Auctioneers establish a “referential” meter wherein a consistent organization of the pulse returns repeatedly, alternating with expansions or contractions of that primary meter. Listeners are entrained to expect musical consistency, but through disruptions of familiar musical patterns, the auctioneer focuses bidder attention on the chant rather than the realities of the economic transaction in progress. Thus, meter is employed as an improvisational tool that unites the listening and bidding audience within a musical space and plays with expectations just enough to keep bidders alert and engaged.

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Geoffrey Miller , “‘Are You All Unhappy at a Twenty Dollar Bill?’: Text, Tune and Context at Antique Auctions,” Ethnomusicology 28/2 (1984): 187

Willard Rhodes , “Musical Creativity of Hausa Children,” Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 9 (1977): 3849

George List , “The Boundaries of Speech and Song,” Ethnomusicology 7/1 (1963): 116

Mantle Hood . “The Challenge of Bi-Musicality.” Ethnomusicology 4/2 (1960): 5559.

Koenraad Kuiper , and Tillis Frederick . “The Chant of the Tobacco Auctioneer.” American Speech 60/2 (1985): 141–49.

Justin London . Hearing in Time: Psychological Aspects of Musical Meter. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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Journal of the Society for American Music
  • ISSN: 1752-1963
  • EISSN: 1752-1971
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-society-for-american-music
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