Pyramidal Questions

A characteristic aspect of quizbowl is the use of pyramidal tossups. Pyramidal tossups are questions that are two to four sentences long and filled with a variety of uniquely-identifyingacademic clues about the answer. Clues are arranged in order, with harder clues being placed before easier clues. This allows players who are more knowledgeable about the answer to have uncontested buzzes earlier in a question. Pyramidal questions are a critical factor in reducing the impact of buzzer speed and buzzer races in quizbowl.

Here is an example of a pyramidal tossup:

This composer’s String Quartet No. 14 is a D minor piece inspired by the poem “Death and the Maiden.” This composer of the Great Symphony wrote a Piano Quintet in A major whose fourth movement is based on his earlier (*) lied [LEET], or art song, titled “The Trout.” This composer died of syphilis in 1828, leaving his Symphony No. 8 with just two complete movements. For 10 points, name this composer of the Unfinished Symphony.
ANSWER: Franz Schubert [or Franz Peter Schubert]

This question contains ten to twelve clues about Schubert’s music. The first clue (the “lead-in“) is about a less well-known piece that the player would only encounter through deep interaction with music, such as performing in a chamber ensemble or listening to many CDs. The last clue (the “giveaway“) is about an extremely famous piece with a memorable title. Each clue in between is progressively easier and provides more context. The question makes the desired answer clear throughout the question by repeatedly stating “this composer.” Each clue points the player towards exactly one possible answer (it is “uniquely-identifying“) and is memorable enough to immediately summon the answer in the player’s memory (it is “evocative“). A player who buzzes before the powermark between the words “earlier” and “lied” is rewarded for their knowledge, and is given 15 points instead of 10 points.

Question Distribution

A round of quizbowl contains twenty tossups and twenty bonuses on a variety of subjects determined by a fixed distribution. Some subjects appears more frequently than other subjects in a single round, but the amount of any given subject remains the same from round to round. A typical question distribution looks something like the list below.

4 Tossups / 4 Bonuses of Literature
4 Tossups /4 Bonuses History
4/4 Science
3/3 Fine Arts
1/1 Religion
1/1 Mythology
1/1 Thought (Philosophy and Social Science)
1/1 Geography
1/1 Civics, and Current Events

Not every tournament has the same distribution – in particular, NAQT has a very specific and detailed distribution for each of their sets. Some common distribution changes include:

  • a popular culture category for sports, music, movies, etc.
  • tweaking the numbers around by 0.5/0.5 to 1/1
  • combining religion and mythology into an overlapping “belief” category
  • grouping geography, civics, and current events into one category

Past question sets and other materials for study and practice are available for free at, a database of literally thousands of old questions.

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