How to make music for musical theater
- Brandon Miller
- 29 June 2021, Tuesday
“You are free to do what you want as long as it doesn't turn into a concert.”Composing for musical theater is quite different than making an album or performing a concert in the sense that the music you are making should support the scenes, story and overall production rather than just stand out from the rest by forcing it's own personality into the performance. That being said it doesn't mean that the music made for theater can't be developed into an album. Over all you are free to do what you want as long as it doesn't turn into a concert. There are no rules but maybe just one, the music isn't about itself alone, it's about the project.
Research and Development
Your research involves not only examining the topic or script, but also meeting the director and crew, discussing the piece and attending rehearsals. You should work closely with the director and other performers to sense what mood each segment of the show should convey. Discuss with them what is happening between the actions and beneath the surface of the story itself. Your music can give life to the unseen while complimenting or contradicting the imagery, actions and dialogue of the play. The scenery, setting and lighting of the stage should also be taken into account. All of these components combined should make up the pallet of sonic colors and temperamental details that you can use to begin composing.
Creating Compositions and Instrumentation
Your musical compositions and instrumentation should be used to enhance the various aspects of the show and not overshadow any of the scenes. It should be woven and worked into the performance in a way that connects the pieces into a functioning whole. Take note of what kind of music you will create for in between scenes and also for when there is dialogue. Your instrumentation need not be conventional, in fact theater is the best place to get out of the box when considering which instruments you will use. Self made instruments on the stage have always been captivating and also the actual sound of self made instruments can steer the music away from becoming a concert. The simplest of instrumentation can be all the more intoxicating and poignant when presented thru the lens of the theater stage.
Practice and Refinement
It takes a whole lot of practice time to refine music for a theater production. After you have developed the music you should go over it with the entire team and each act many times over until you have refined it down to it's most useful, practical and potent features. The working process is different for everyone and for every type of production but in the end when it comes time to put on the show you must all work together. The art of refinement depends on your ability to work with the rest of the crew figuring out what works and what doesn't. Many times the greatest, most powerful moments will grow out from under the structures that are rehearsed repetitively during the critical process of group work. Often times, spontaneous developments of creative genius will arise out of this mundane exercise. Applying music to dramatic performance is one of the oldest and most primitive group activities known to mankind and we are still refining this art of ceremony even today. Don't be afraid to try out the unconventional and to venture out of already formulated motifs and arrangements with your music.
You should play what you rehearsed and avoid going outside of what you developed and what the other performers in your group expect. Your body language should reflect what your role is in relationship to the rest of what is happening around you on the stage. A performer's natural presence is equally as important as their performance because the audience recollects how they feel from the experience and your composure is noticeable to everyone. Theater music doesn't need to be flawless, it should reflect and support the sentiment of the story being told. You must find an intuitive connection between what you rehearsed, your natural presence and body language, and all that is happening around you moment by moment through the arch of the show until the final bow.
Sampling and recorded playback
You can sample any sound in the world and play it live but there are a few thing to watch out for. Number one is timing and order. Be sure you have all your sample triggers prepared in the sequence of the show on your DAW so that you aren't scrambling to find the right sample under time pressure. Also make sure you can actually see the trigger buttons on your equipment because usually the theater is dark during the show. You can use a tiny flashlight but it could be distracting. You don't want to miss a cue or hit the wrong sample because you can't find it. Be certain that your sound system levels are of approximate volume to the rest of what will be happening on stage and through the show. Too loud or too quiet can be ruinous.
Sound effects and design
Using effects such as an octave shifter, reverse delay or distortion with voice or instrument can add elements of the surreal, strange or spooky, which can work well so long as it's done with an intent behind it that relates to the show. Often with effects you want to use them sparingly, with coherence and watch not to get out of hand overloading the sound system.
Other sound effects can be kind of old fashioned in the sense that objects, tools and instruments are played in an attempt to imitate something else. Like hitting the rim of the drum with a drumstick for the sound of gunshots, or using a microphone to make a plethora of possible sounds with your mouth, like the sound of the wind, or a car or an animal. You can combine your own samples along with your live playing and effects and mix it all together at once but just be sure you don't lose the plot.
When you use your sequencer in combination with your live playing and effects take the time to get all the levels properly balanced and panned to specification on every channel in your cue, on your machines, in the house, and on the stage. There are many links in these chains, so check your batteries, cables and electric grounding before every show. These components are finicky and can take up time trying to locate when problems occur. Back up all your files to an external hard drive because though it's unlikely that five minutes before your premier the laptop you are using for the show crashes, it could happen. Be prepared for anything and aim to break out of the ordinary because theater music doesn't need to fit into a box.
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