The Complete Guide To The Cup Song

The Complete Guide To The Cup Song

The Complete Guide To The Cup Song

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 (and they have a few interesting variations in the routine!):

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 Maisy 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 inspiration 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 🙂 .

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By |2018-09-07T01:42:42+00:00September 15th, 2013|Elementary Ideas|34 Comments

About the Author:

I love to simplify technology for music teachers. I help teachers from all around the world through the Midnight Music Community - an online professional development community where teachers can take online courses, ask questions and receive personalised help for the music tech goals.


  1. Wendy Turton September 16, 2013 at 6:31 am - Reply

    Hi Katie- Denise was out here in Australia last month. She uses the cup routine to teach about Rondo. She has it in her Musicplay resource Level 3. Thanks for the story behind it all, interesting. Regards, Wendy.

    • Katie September 17, 2013 at 10:43 am - Reply

      Thanks for sharing Wendy!

  2. Natalie October 2, 2013 at 5:55 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the origins of the song, Katie, so interesting! I look forward to sharing it with my students. I recently did a mash-up with Cups and the chorus of I Knew You Were Trouble by Taylor Swift for my 5/6 choir, Five Six Mix, and they fit together nicely. It was the students’ idea and arrangement!

    • Katie October 7, 2013 at 7:09 am - Reply

      Thanks Natalie – love the name of the choir!

  3. Tina Ross October 10, 2013 at 9:49 am - Reply

    Thank you so much Katie. What a timely post, I was just researching this for my year 6 students!

    • Katie October 10, 2013 at 11:02 am - Reply

      I’m happy it was a help Tina – a few other teachers have said the same thing! – Katie

  4. Zita Sankauskas October 22, 2013 at 1:03 am - Reply

    Hi Katie! Absolutely loved the info……Used it with my year 6/7’s to learn about the song, and game . The students practiced by them selves, then with partners, 4’s, then circles incorporating all that wanted to join in. They loved it all. Videod it to puit onto my class blog.
    Am also performing it with my New Zealand Performance exchange choir, as our warm up. 8 student play the cups at the front, and the other 20 line up behind to sing. Do you have acces to a written two part harmony?

    • Katie October 22, 2013 at 2:03 pm - Reply

      Thanks Zita – great to hear about your experiences. I’m afraid I don’t know of a written a 2-part arrangement, but it probably wouldn’t be very difficult to transcribe if you or someone else you know is up to it. – Katie

  5. Morten Bond November 11, 2013 at 11:11 pm - Reply

    Hi! I have made video of my class doing the cup song (only translated into Norwegian). I am thinking about putting it out on youtube, but I don’t want to break any copyright-laws (even though everonyone else is doing it). Do you know if the melody are copyright-protected or free to use?

    • Katie November 12, 2013 at 6:36 am - Reply

      Hi Morten,
      I don’t know if that song is still in copyright (I’d guess that it probably is since it was originally recorded in 1931 – it bit too recent for it to be in the public domain I think). You might be OK anyway since your version would likely fall into the category of “cover version” which is allowed (see this article . However, copyright laws vary for each country anyway: we have different laws here in Australia compared to other places like the US, so you would need to check your own local laws to be sure. Hope that helps! – Katie

  6. Eileen Callejas December 19, 2013 at 6:15 am - Reply

    LOL! let’s dig a little deeper before 1984 and the start of the New Digital World: I can tell you for a fact that I learned the cup routine as a game in or before 1986… and it was likely passed prolifically around the USA with a group called “Up With People” between 1982-1986. To my personal memory; it was passed to us as host families by students from Germany, who claimed that the game was always played using real glasses, and that if you messed up the team’s rhythm or passing then you were out (…and had to go take a drink/shot if you were of legal age!) How far back it went in their heritage is going to take some more digging. It is hard to say… Tacit Knowledge & Hybrid Pedagogy are just like that! Fitting that it is timed to a song which reminds us of the value-lost in a civilization that relies on the investment of generational passing-on of auditory knowledge… Lets just see how far back this Cup Tribe must dig to unite ourselves once again!

  7. […] EDIT: It is already a very old song and also the cup routine is very old! Read about it here ! […]

  8. Donna January 14, 2014 at 10:27 am - Reply

    A traditional Irish version!

  9. Rosa March 4, 2014 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    my school is doing it. LOTS OF FUN! thanks for the help!!!

  10. Joanne Hammil March 20, 2014 at 10:38 am - Reply

    LOVE this ‘guide’, Katie!! Wonderful history and examples!
    Thought you might like to see a very different version. I wrote a round to go with this cups routine (way before Pitch Perfect) called “Bang the Glass” and my chorus (I direct the Greater Boston Intergenerational Chorus) performed it in 2008:
    I can post a pdf of the song but don’t know how to do that in this comments box. Maybe you can email me and I’ll attach to an email back to you so you can post it here for anyone who wants to try that version. It’s useful for music teachers to use with younger kids because the words say exactly what you’re doing.

    • Katie March 28, 2014 at 10:36 am - Reply

      Apologies for the late reply Joanne! Great round – I can’t believe you’re all using real glasses! I’ll email you for the PDF so I can upload it here. – Katie

  11. Jeni Wiant July 16, 2014 at 5:56 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the history lesson! I’ve used the game with the song “The Entertainer.” I put a sticker inside 4 cups in my class circle. At various points in the song the music is stopped. Students who have a sticker when the music stops are out of the game.

  12. Kerryn Oliver August 28, 2014 at 4:14 am - Reply

    Last year, our staff at Alden Elementary did a mock-up of the song called “You’re Gonna Love Me When I Lead” (adaptation of the song) for our staff video. You can see it at:

    • Katie September 5, 2014 at 9:23 am - Reply

      Thanks Kerryn! I love the crickets and bell (idea) sound effects 🙂 Good adaptation of the lyrics too!
      – Katie

  13. Angela Gossett January 29, 2015 at 2:23 am - Reply

    This is a great resource! Thanks for putting the time into putting this information together in one place. I will be using this next week!
    Angela Gossett

    • Katie January 29, 2015 at 8:21 am - Reply

      You’re welcome Angela! I hope your lessons go well 🙂
      – Katie

  14. TakaTaka January 11, 2016 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Wow, this is very interesting. I’m a music instructor and I’ve played some cup games with my students but I never know there’s so much history in it. Thanks for the research and sharing.

    • Katie January 12, 2016 at 9:38 am - Reply

      You’re welcome 🙂 I found it interesting when I was researching it too!

  15. Music Curriculum | Pearltrees May 27, 2016 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    […] We looked at the different types of digital artefacts (video, audio, text and images) that might make up a portfolio and I went into more detail about the first two – video and audio – in part 2A . In this installment, I’ll discuss some of the available options for creating text and images. Text Text-based artefacts can include essays, written responses, definitions, song lyrics, and may also include hyperlinks to further reading or other support material. Powerpoint or KeynoteEvernoteBook Creator app (iOS and Android)Explain Everything app (iOS and Android)Website/blogging platforms such as WordPress, Weebly or Wix Images Photographs – original Photographs of students “in action” or of objects that are an integral part of their project can be created with the following: Photographs – existing Icons Photo collages Visual quotes. The Complete Guide to the Cup Song | Midnight Music. […]

  16. […] What did you do the first days of school?  Extra Cup Song Teaching Resources The Cup Song in General Music The Complete Guide to the Cup Song […]

  17. Cup song 2016 | Pearltrees August 30, 2016 at 11:29 pm - Reply

    […] The Complete Guide to the Cup Song | Midnight Music. 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. […]

  18. Plastic Cup Activities - Picklebums September 20, 2016 at 5:53 pm - Reply

    […] Learn the cup song! – from Midnight Music […]

  19. […] The Complete Guide to the Cup-Song-all about the cup match and song for music teachers. URwww.midnightmusic … […]

  20. Ally Healy October 5, 2016 at 12:39 am - Reply

    Wow i am learning the song in chorus class and it is amazing. I have to do a research project for the song and i think this is the best website i have found

    • Katie October 8, 2016 at 2:19 pm - Reply

      Thanks Ally! Good luck with your research project 🙂

  21. Thomas August 19, 2017 at 8:50 pm - Reply

    Hi guys, we did a cup song mashup. What do you think?

    • Katie August 20, 2017 at 2:11 pm - Reply

      Thanks Thomas – I’ll take a look!

  22. Mardeana Glasel April 6, 2018 at 1:02 am - Reply

    I’ve used the cup routine with the song “Turn the Glasses Over”.

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