What Does Tickling the Ivories Mean?

Tickling the Ivories Meaning

Definition: Playing the piano.

Origin of Tickling the Ivories

This expression comes from the material pianos were made with in the past, and the motion people use to play it.

In the past, the white keys of the piano were covered with an ivory veneer. Nowadays this practice is not common since there are laws against harvesting ivory.

Also, tickle means to agitate someone by touching him or her with wiggling fingers. This motion makes the person laugh, and it looks similar to the way moving hands look as they play a piano.

tickling the ivory This verb has described the motion of other instruments back to the 1700s. However, the specific expression tickling the ivories only dates back to the early 1900s.

Examples of Tickling the Ivories

This example shows two college students using the idiom while discussing what they did over the weekend.

Frank: I had the best weekend ever! I went home and played video games the whole time. What about you? What did you do?

Karl: I went home too, and I wanted to play video games but I couldn’t. My relatives were visiting from out of town, and they wanted me to play the piano for them. I spent the whole weekend tickling the ivories, as they say.

tickle the ivories In this example, two friends are discussing where to go on Friday night.

Lily: Where should we go? Do you want to go to a bar?

Grace: Sure. We could go to that dueling piano bar. They have good drinks at cheap prices, and we can watch people tickling the ivories while we drink!

Lily: That sounds great. Let’s do it.

More Examples

The excerpt below describes the actions of two characters on a TV show. They play piano together.

  • There’s some drama, for sure, but also some musical hijinks in store: In this exclusive clip, Lucifer and Frank tickle the ivories at Lucifer’s bar and come up with a swinging little ditty. “The Father has got soul,” Lucifer says. Frank’s response: “You ain’t seeing nothing yet.” –USA Today

This excerpt is about a public piano that anyone has permission to play.

  • Random players are encouraged to tickle the ivories at the Piano Push Plays around Portland, Ore. This particular piano was near the Portland Art Museum. –LA Times


The expression tickling means to move one’s fingers and ivories refers to the white keys on a piano, made from the tusks of an elephant or walrus.