Step Four: Choosing the Perfect Music

2406045813_cab5f8211d_z

(Photo by Joe Flood)

After you have developed your “sound,” you will need to start to pin down specific tracks to your script. As you look through royalty-free music websites for the perfect music, keep your script nearby so that you can start to match songs to scenes.

There are three main types of music in theatrical productions:

  1. Diegetic music
  2. Incidental/non-diegetic music
  3. Pre-show/intermission/curtain music

Diegetic music

Diegetic music refers to music that occurs as part of the action (rather than as background), and can be heard by the film’s characters. For example, if a character in your play turns on the radio, the sound that emerges is diegetic. It is often a good idea to start with this kind of music, although not all productions will have it.

This type of music is often more specific to the play, so you may have less control in this area. While working on my current sound design for Antigone Now, I had one occurrence of diegetic when a character was listening to her iPod. The director and the actress picked the song she would listen to, so all I had to do was add it to my design.

Incidental/non-diegetic music

This refers to the music that the characters cannot hear; it is also referred to as commentary music, as it can comment on the action. It can set the mood or reflect the emotions of the characters. Some directors may not want to use incidental music at all, as it can detract from the realism of the play. If used well, however, this type of music can add a powerful layer to the play.

We tend to categorize emotions in music into four categories—happy, sad, scary and serious—but it is important to look past these initial categories for a more nuanced design. “Sad music” has its own cliches; somber piano tunes with high violin notes has been used over and over. Sometimes it is more effective to find songs that are soft, but sound almost happy. For Antigone Now, I found soft and hopeful acoustic guitar songs and played them during sad scenes. It gave the scenes a bittersweet mood and made me feel emotional even as I read the script along with the music.

Pre-show/intermission/curtain music

Music before and after (and in the middle of) your play can keep the audience interested, but its most important function is to set the mood. You can take greater liberties with this music, but it still a good idea not to stray too far from your “sound.” For example, I used instrumental acoustic guitar music heavily during Antigone Now, but I used songs with acoustic guitar and vocals for pre-show and intermission music.

Follow Staging Sound for more tips and tricks and information about theatrical sound design!