Hat Game

The Hat Game is a session format to try now and then, for a bit of fun. It’s a slight formalisation of what often happens in a session anyway – one song suggests another through theme, mood, artist, historical period or some other commonality.

The Brisbane Saturday Session plays Hat Game on the first Saturday of each month. We play with two hats, one containing ‘Topics’ and the other containing ‘Other Stuff’ (such as genre, artist, time signature, country of origin, historical period of origin, musical features). The game starts with someone choosing a slip of paper from one hat or the other and blu-takking it to a wine bottle for all to see. Then the sessioners rack their brains for songs that ‘fit’ whatever the piece of paper says.

Song follows song until the sessioners run out of ideas, or decide there are too many songs that fit, or just fancy a new stimulus, upon which someone delves into a hat again. If the topic’s considered too broad or too easy, someone might pick from the hat of ‘Other Stuff’ to add a constraint. For example, if the topic is The Sea, a constraint like ‘up-tempo’, ‘has both major and minor parts’, ‘has more than three verses’ or ‘only uses two chords’ can liven things up.

Why play Hat Game? For us as a regular weekly session group, it’s a useful exercise in not playing the same comfortable set of songs over and over.  A Hat Game topic like Seasons of the Year makes us comb through our memories for songs we used to know, or half-know, or wish we knew – California Dreaming, Summer of 69, any song that mentions the springtime of the year. It’s always a delight when someone you’ve sessioned with for years rips out a song you’ve never heard them do before (perhaps  never even heard before). A Hat Game always sparks a rash of people running out and learning new repertoire, or refreshing songs they haven’t sung for years, which benefits the session for the long term.

Hat Game encourages us to branch out into genres of music we don’t usually play. Jazz is rare at our session, but the Seasons topic will bring out Summertime and Autumn Leaves. The game gives us permission to be a bit silly or transgressive – to sing children’s songs, movie song, music hall, light opera, maudlin country, plastic paddy songs, and other things we wouldn’t normally feel ‘belonged’ in a session. Since we regularly have Poem as a genre in the hat, bursts of limerick and short verse – even the occasional full-length bush ballad – get their moment in the sun.

There’s a particular energy that comes from the idea that we’re playing a game, not performing. Even more than usual, it’s permissible to sing the fragment you remember rather than a whole song, or sing a capella because you never learnt the chords, or sing solo because no-one else knows this one but it fits the topic so well. There’s an excitement in scrambling to help each other out – didn’t the second verse go something like ‘Tumpty-tumpty-something about fish in the springtime of the year’?

And, of course, because it’s allegedly a ‘game’ with ‘rules’, there’s endless fun in claiming ‘points’ because your song combines the last three topics, or arguing that the tune you just led fits the theme of Food because a. It’s called Crooked Stovepipe and b. You learnt it from the playing of Steve Cook. Along the same lines, Summons in the Morning fits the theme of Courting, as does Upward Over the Mountain if you happen to play it on a Cort guitar. At the end of the day, we all win.

Of course the person setting up the Hat Game should ‘cheat’ by considering who’s likely to be there and what’s in their regular repertoire. It would be horrible if someone sat mum for an entire session, thinking they couldn’t play anything because none of their songs fit what was coming out of the hat. We encourage people to ignore the rules any time they like, and play whatever they want. I also try to make sure there are some very broad Topics and Other Stuff in the hats, so everyone has plenty of chances to lead.

Game set-up

  1. Think about the songs and tunes you yourself would like to sing and play
  2. Think about who else is going to be there, and what songs and tunes you’d like to hear from them
  3. Choose 10 or 12 Topics for one hat, and 10 or 12 Other Stuff for the other hat (the numbers will depend on how big your session group is, what their repertoire is like and how long the session will run. Ours has up to 20 people and runs for 4 hours, and we never get through even half of what’s in the hats – which is much better than running out). Try for a mix of ‘broad’ and ‘specific’ Topics, along with ‘easy’ and ‘trickier’ Other Stuff.

Conducting the game

  1. Briefly explain at the start of the session that there are Topics in one hat and Other Stuff in the other. We draw a new piece of paper whenever we exhaust the one we’re on, or get bored with it. We can have a Topic and an Other Stuff running at the same time.
  2. If possible, get a table number stand or wine bottle and attach the paper to it, in the middle of the table, so newcomers can see what the current theme is.
  3. It’s always okay to revisit a Topic or Other Stuff that came up earlier.
  4. Bonus points for finding humorous ways to bend the rules and argue that the song or tune you’re doing fits the current topic, even if it doesn’t.
  5. Make sure people understand that they can ignore the theme altogether and just play what they want to play.
  6. Encourage shy sessioners to do songs you know they know – help them with outrageous justifications for why the song fits the theme.
  7. Keep it relaxed and fun.

Example Topics

  • Sailors, Ships and the Sea
  • Miners and Mining
  • Rebellions, Uprisings and Protests
  • Love Gone Wrong
  • Roving/ Wandering/ Travelling
  • Dreams and Visions
  • Rude/ Bawdy
  • Any season of the year (or day or month)
  • Specific Male or Female Name (e.g. Ann/Annie, William/Bill/Billy)
  • Specific Placenames (e.g. Gundagai, or just any specific place name)

Example Other Stuff

  • Genres e.g. children’s song, shanty, poem, tune, TV theme, music hall, jazz, country
  • Eras e.g. pre-radio, 1960s, past ten years
  • Musical features e.g. has both major and minor parts, in in ¾ time, has a key change, song you can dance to, has only 2 chords
  • Song features e.g. has more than 3 verses, has a simple singalong chorus, is not in English
  • Country of origin e.g. Australia, Ireland, England, America
  • Specific band, songwriter or artist e.g. The Eagles, Paul Kelly, Joan Baez

I’m going to write about ‘filking’ at some stage – those guys use some interesting session formats. Would be great to hear from anyone who’s run sessions in experimental ways.


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