Step Four: Choosing the Perfect Music

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(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.

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Step Two: The Exploration Phase

After meeting with your director, it is a good idea to start listening to music to develop a ‘sound’ for the play. You can use Spotify, Youtube or another streaming platform to explore a nearly endless amount of music for free.

When I began working on Antigone Now, I juggled a number of different ‘sounds’ during this phase. As the play is a modernized version of the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone, I thought the music should reflect both the play’s modern setting and its ancient roots. I listened to dozens of contemporary film scores in order to get a broad sense of what kind of music is being used in films today.

I boiled my search down to a number of ‘sounds’ that could work. These were an acoustic guitar-based Americana sound, a ragtime inspired piano-based sound or a modern, synthesizer-heavy sound. Then I played a sample of each as I read various scenes from the play. This process is fairly unscientific; it mainly just helps you find a musical direction. Designers must develop their ear to be able to determine what music fits with which scenes.

None of these ‘sounds’ matched the script well, however, so I had to return to the drawing board. I liked the acoustic guitar but I didn’t want to completely abandon the possibility of incorporating synthesizers into my design. I searched and listened and searched and listened, and I couldn’t come across any soundtracks that fit my desired ‘sound.’

I decided to retreat into my personal music collection and see if I could find any inspiration. I ended up listening to a abstract vocal song from an avant-garde Italian soundtrack from the 70s, and inspiration hit. Soundtracks from southern Europe in the 70s experimented with synthesizers, but also used traditional instruments like acoustic guitar and strings, sounding both new and old. Moreover, they held a certain Mediterranean musical quality that could evoke the play’s Greek roots. Using a songs from a number of these soundtracks, I created my ‘sound.’

The problem? This type of soundtrack is generally copyrighted. I would advise not to get too attached to the songs you find in this phase, because your director may require that you only use music that is in the public domain or licensed under creative commons. Follow Staging Sound and stay updated to find out how to find music you can use for free in your sound design!