play musical chairs, to

play musical chairs

1. Literally, to play the children's game known as "musical chairs," in which participants walk around a circle of chairs until the music stops and each person tries to sit on a chair. There are always fewer chairs than players, and the person who remains standing is removed from the game after each round, until only one remains. Mommy, can we play musical chairs at my birthday party?
2. To move, shuffle, or rearrange people from one position to another, as in a group or organization. After the boss resigned, everyone started playing musical chairs in the company to figure out who would take over for whom. We've been playing musical chairs trying to create enough space in the living room for Alex's birthday party this weekend.
See also: chair, musical, play

play musical chairs, to

To swap jobs, prospects, or decisions in a rapid, confusing fashion. The term comes from a children’s game, also called “going to Jerusalem,” in which the players march to music around a row of chairs where every other chair faces in the opposite direction. When the music stops, the players must sit down, but, there being one fewer chair than the number of players, one player cannot and is eliminated (along with one more chair). The name of the game was transferred to job changes within a corporation or other organization in the early twentieth century. Britain’s former prime minister, Sir Harold Wilson, played on it in his book, The Governance of Britain (1976): “Hence the practised performances of latter-day politicians in the game of musical daggers: never be left holding the dagger when the music stops.”
See also: musical, play