Descriptions automatiques consists of three short pieces for piano: "Sur un vaisseau" ("On a Ship"), "Sur une lanterne" (On a Street Lamp), and "Sur un casque" (On a Helmet). This work is among the first of Satie's to make liberal use of folk songs, popular songs, and children's songs. Satie's borrowings are reminiscent of those of American composer Charles Ives, well-known for his use of folk, pop, and hymn tunes; however, Satie's use of borrowed tunes in this work does not approach the seriousness or complexity that characterizes Ives' treatments of similar tunes.
The first of the three Descriptions, "Sur un vaisseau," makes use of a children's song well-known in Satie's time: "Maman, les p' tits bateaux qui vont sur l'eau ont-ils des jambes?" ("Mama, do the little boats on the water have legs?"). The second Description, "Sur une lanterne," borrows a phrase from the revolutionary song "La Carmagnole" (a reference to the costumes, called "carmagnoles," of French revolutionaries). The final piece, "Sur un casque," has the piano playing martial rhythms and imitating bugle calls. Like many of Satie's piano pieces, "Sur une lanterne" also contains humorous instructions to the pianist, including directions to play "heavy as a sow" and "light as an egg." In the Descriptions, Satie juxtaposes borrowed, diatonic melodies with harmonies that are often dissonant, or at least tonally ambiguous--typical of Satie's style in his early "fantaisiste" period.
Although these little pieces stand on their own as charming examples of Satie the humorist, musicologists have rightly pointed out that Satie's works in this vein, like those of Ives, are self-limiting in terms of accessibility by the fact of their use of borrowed material. Street songs and children's rhymes that would have struck a chord and conveyed a multiplicity of meanings to a Parisian audience in 1913 say little to twenty-first century ears.