Music & Entertainment

Learn About Magic Tricks and 6 Tips for Beginner Magicians

Written by MasterClass

May 20, 2019 • 7 min read

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Penn & Teller Teach the Art of Magic

If the word “abracadabra” conjures up childhood memories of a magician with a deck of cards at a birthday party, you are not alone. Magic is often the first form of entertainment many of us experience, starting with the “peekaboo” disappearing act. Our minds are naturally drawn to illusions that defy what we know to be true. As our brains grow and evolve, so do the tricks that mystify and entertain us.


What Is Magic?

Magic is an intellectual performing art in which the artist convinces an audience that it has witnessed seemingly impossible feats, using natural means. There is nothing paranormal or supernatural about magic tricks—magicians achieve illusions through practiced deception. It is a form of acting in which the artist presents one reality to the audience member, hiding another reality—actions that only they are aware of.

The 10 Most Common Magic Tricks

Magic has many forms, and every magician brings their own particular style and worldview to their routine. However, a number of tried and tested illusions down have been passed down from generation to generation of magicians, who use them in both isolation and in various combinations.

  1. Production. The magician makes something appear out of thin air, like pulling a rabbit out of an empty top hat.
  2. Vanishing. The inverse of production. This is when the magician makes something or someone disappear. The ball that appears to vanish in mid-air is a common example, but magicians have “disappeared” objects as large as national monuments.
  3. Transformation. The magician alters an object’s form or properties, such as changing a flower’s color or transforming a dollar bill into a dove.
  4. Restoration. After appearing to destroy an object, the magician restores it. Common examples include cutting an assistant in half or tearing a piece of paper, and then making them whole again.
  5. Transportation. In this combination of vanishing and production, the magician makes an object appear to move from one place to another.
  6. Transposition. In what is also known as double transportation, the magician makes multiple objects change places.
  7. Escape. The magician breaks free from restraints such as handcuffs or a straight jacket. This may be combined with a death trap, like the water tanks that straight-jacketed Harry Houdini was famous for escaping from.
  8. Levitation. Defying gravity, the magician makes something or someone appear to levitate.
  9. Penetration. The magician makes a solid object appear to pass through another. The classic trick of linking and unlinking steel rings is an example.
  10. Prediction. Despite apparent ignorance, the magician predicts an outcome or an audience member’s choice, such as the card chosen from (and secretly kept at) the top of the deck.

Where Did Modern Performative Magic Originate?

Humans have been practicing magic since ancient times, with both honest and dishonest intentions. While some people have crafted and perfected illusions to entertain their fellow man, others have used trickery as a means to control and take advantage of the unsuspecting and uneducated.

  • We typically think of magic as a form of entertainment, but religions and cults have used magic tricks to frighten and fool unsuspecting people into following them obediently. Society historically associated magic with the devil and witchcraft.
  • Additionally, unscrupulous practitioners have long used magic tricks to cheat people out of money, giving the illusion of conjuring spirits at séances, or using sleight of hand to cheat at card games or pick pockets.
  • As a form of entertainment, performers at fairs commonly incorporated magic tricks into their shows until the eighteenth century. At that point, people began to believe less in witchcraft and the art form entered into polite society, where wealthy patrons paid for the private spectacle.
  • In the nineteenth century, Frenchman Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805–1871) created what we know today as the modern theatrical art form. Opening a magic theater in Paris in 1845, Robert-Houdin made magic a performance art that people paid to see theatrically and influenced other magicians to transition to permanent stages, which could be built with machinery designed for elaborate tricks.
  • Taking his name from Robert-Houdin, Hungarian-born American illusionist Harry Houdini (1874–1926) popularized escapology at the turn of the century. Using lockpicking skills, he broke free from handcuffs and shackles in death traps to amaze audiences in the U.S. and Europe.
  • With the advent of television, with its limited camera frame, editing possibilities, and even planted audience members, magicians found a new platform through which to create illusions for even bigger audiences. In specials and series, twenty- and twenty-first-century illusionists have pushed the art form forward and made it extremely lucrative.

14 Types of Magical Performance

Just as there are many kinds of magic tricks, there are also many types of magic performances, from intimate shows where the audience can closely observe the illusionist to big-scale stunts designed for television productions.

  1. Stage illusions. The magician performs for a large audience in a theater or auditorium, using large-scale props, assistants, and even large animals.
  2. Parlor magic. The magician does tricks for a medium-size audience, positioned on the same level as them, with the audience seated in chairs or on the floor.
  3. Close-up magic. Performing in close proximity to an audience that is smaller than both stage and parlor magic—and can be as small as a single person—the magician uses commonly found small objects such as playing cards and coins.
  4. Escapology. Restrained or confined, the magician breaks free.
  5. Pickpocket magic. Using misdirection, the magician stealthily takes items such as wallets and belts off of an audience member.
  6. Mentalism. The magician create the impression that they are mind reading or controlling minds.
  7. Children’s magic. Performing for kids at birthday parties, libraries, and schools, the magicians performs a show is fun, comedic, and encourages audience participation.
  8. Mathemagic. The magician combines math and magic, typically for children.
  9. Street magic. In this variation of close-up magic, the magician performs on the street, surrounded by an audience, such as the shuffling of three cards in Three-card Monte. Alternatively, they may perform for unsuspecting passersby, as David Blaine is famous for doing.
  10. Shock magic. The magician shocks their audience with tricks such as piercing their flesh with needles or eating razor blades.
  11. Comedy magic. The magician combines magic and stand-up comedy in their act. Penn & Teller are famous for this.
  12. Quick change magic. The magician or their assistant change costumes quickly.
  13. Camera magic. Designed for TV broadcasts and recordings, the magician takes advantage of editing, the viewing audience’s inability to see what is happening out of the camera’s frame, and even paid extras planted as spectators, to create illusions.
  14. Classical magic. In this retro style, the artist performs in the classical, elegant style of nineteenth- and twentieth-century magicians.

6 Tips for Beginner Magicians

Whether you want to learn magic to entertain friends and family or to become a star of the stage and screen, following these tips for beginners will help you develop into the magician you want to be.

  1. Learn to do a couple tricks well. Mastering a card trick or a couple coin tricks that you can perform repeatedly is enough to put on magic shows. Doing 15 tricks unconvincingly is useless.
  2. Practice, practice, practice. Whether you are learning easy magic tricks with a rubber band as a hobby or are committed to becoming a professional magician with elaborate stunts, practice is essential. At any level, performing tricks will be awkward and difficult at first but gets easier with time. Work on a trick step-by-step until you have it down. The step instructions will eventually become seamless movements. Your goal is to get so good that your sleight of hand is imperceptible. Every failure is a learning opportunity, so relax and have fun with the process!
  3. Remember that magic is acting. The key to a good trick is never letting on what you’re secretly doing to create the illusion. Focus on your performance, not what you’re secretly doing.
  4. Perform for an audience as often as you can. Magic is a deceptive art form that requires at least two people. You can’t simultaneously perform a trick and be deceived by it. If you don’t perform a trick for someone, it is not a magic trick. The more you perform in front of an audience, the more comfortable you will become. Plus, the audience reaction is thrilling!
  5. Don’t be nervous. The world will not end if you make a mistake while performing for an audience. Maintain control by acting, faking confidence no matter what happens.
  6. Add your personal touch. Your unique personality and worldview will make a magic trick or show memorable. Even if you are doing the same tricks as other magicians, the showmanship that you bring to it will differentiate your performance.

Learn more magic tips and techniques in Penn & Teller’s MasterClass.