The Complete Guide To The Cup Song

Posted on September 15th, 2013 in Music Tech Tips.

Origins of the cup song

It’s a craze that has swept over schools everywhere and contrary to popular belief, the Cup Song (or “Cup Game”) was not created for the 2012 movie Pitch Perfect. Both the song and game that accompanies it have been around for years and their history is an interesting one.

The song – When I’m Gone – was originally written and recorded by country music group The Carter Family in 1931. The Mainers Mountaineers later recorded their own version of the song in 1937 and at this time it was a stand-alone song, with no cup-based rhythmic accompaniment.

The cup routine itself is attributed to performer Rich Mullins and it started life as a rhythmic accompaniment for his 1987 song Screen Door. You can see Rich Mullins in an a cappella performance of the song in this video:

The game grew in popularity and was picked up by many music teachers and camp leaders as a fun, challenging activity which could accompany any song and even made a brief appearance on the 1980s sitcom Full House.

The cup game first gained mainstream popularity on Youtube with a performance by Lulu and the Lampshades. They decided to pair it with the When I’m Gone song and uploaded a video of their performance back in 2009 (yes, waaaaay before Pitch Perfect):

Anna Burden later covered that version and Anna Kendrik (the actor from Pitch Perfect) is reported to have seen her video on the social trend-spotting website Reddit. Anna Kendrick spent an afternoon learning it and when the Pitch Perfect producers discovered she knew it, they decided to include it in the movie.

The Anna Kendrick version has also been made into a “director’s cut” film clip, simply titled Cups.

How to do the cup song

If you search on Youtube for “cup game tutorial”, you’ll return hundreds of results and not many of the videos do a good job of teaching the sequence! One of the better tutorials was created by two girls who created a series of teaching videos for music games and they do a great job of teaching things sequentially. They’re wearing the same clothes in all of their videos which makes me think they recorded them all in one day! Here’s their Cup Game video, but I would recommend taking a look at their other videos as well.

There’s also a repetitive, slow version here and one by a group of kids on the Zoom TV show here.

And the award goes to…

There are hundreds of inventive (and some not-so-inventive) versions of the cup song on Youtube. Here are a few of my favourite ones:

Best percussive arrangement

The award for the most rhythmically interesting (and challenging) arrangement goes to Harvard percussion group THUD.

Best a cappella arrangement

Popular Youtube music producer Kurt Hugo Schneider created this clever a cappella arrangement with 3 friends:

Biggest number of performers

Unofficial world record for the biggest number of participants in a cup song performance: a group of 600 Irish students and staff:

Most daring use of glass

Glasses feature in this version by a Russian comedy group:

Biggest variety in cups used

Cups: The Extreme Edition features an array of cup styles:

6 cup game activities for music teachers

In addition to teaching students the cup song as it appears on Pitch Perfect, you can also try the following:

1. The traditional game-style version: do the cup routine in a circle, passing the cup to your right at the end of each cycle. Speed up gradually. Anyone who fumbles, drops their cup, or messes up the rhythm moves out of the circle while the remaining players continue on. The circle gets smaller and smaller as players are eliminated, until there is just one winner left.

2. Perform the cup rhythm on its own, as a round in two parts. The second person starts after 4 beats, half-way through the first person’s rhythm.

3. Perform the cup rhythm as a round, but this time do it in four parts. Each person can start 2 beats after the other.

4. Ask students to come up with their own 8-beat variation on the cup sequence. They can then perform the original sequence, followed by their own rhythm and then the original sequence again to create an ABA form.

5. Use the cup game as an ostinato to accompany almost any song. There are a number of examples of this on Youtube including a One Thing/What Makes You Beautiful/ Cup Song mashup, a Titanium cover , a version of “Call Your Girlfriend” by sisters Maisey and Lennon and an Orff workshop in action.

6. Use this listening activity by Denise Gagne (which uses just the first part of the cup game rhythm) as inspriation for your own listening activities.

Cup Game Freebie

Teacher Aileen Miracle of Mrs Miracle’s Music Room has created a free downloadable resource for music teachers which includes the cup game chant, activity directions and the song I’ve Been To Harlem.

Your own version?

Have you used the cup game at your school? Do you have a variation on the original game? Perhaps you’ve seen an innovative version not mentioned above? Let me know in the comments below :) .

How to do the cup song
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