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Musical chairs is a game where a number of chairs one less than the number of players are arranged facing outward with the players standing in a circle just outside of that. 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 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.
"Playing musical chairs" is also a metaphorical way of describing any activity where items or people are repeatedly and usually pointlessly shuffled among various locations. 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 in turn due to the instability of the governing system (see cabinet shuffle).
"Musical chairs" has formerly been known as "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.
In the movie Amadeus, Mozart, his wife, and his father play a variant at a party: 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.
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.
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 non-competitive version of "musical chairs" one chair but no player is eliminated in each round. All players have to "sit down" on the remaining chairs, while their feet must not touch the floor.
A Cold Wind Blows is another non-competitive substitute for "musical chairs."
Extreme Musical Chairs: The set up is the same as traditional 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.
The CW television network have a reality show called Oh Sit! (called Extreme Musical Chairs in pre-production). The premise of the show features contestants in a "physically demanding competition with multiple rounds of elimination set in an indoor obstacle course."
- Wallenstein, Andrew (2011-09-21). "CW preps 'Musical Chairs'". Variety.