Sunday Silliness

Sunday Silliness: Musical Appreciation

I heard this years ago on an old cassette tape that someone gave me as a birthday present, and it just blew me away. It is so silly, and so unusual, but still has an incredibly clever musicological streak running through it. Perhaps some of it is lost on me due to my lack of baseball knowledge, but it is very entertaining and informative, and worth the almost nine minutes of the video. If you really don’t have time you can skip the introduction and start at 52 seconds in.

Right, so this is a performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but treated as a huge sporting occasion: there are roaring crowds, pregame rituals, and a couple of very excitable commentators offering player stats (not my pun), discussion of form (ditto) and a blow-by-blow account of what is going on.

As a side note: the man behind the whole thing is Professor Peter Schickele, a musicologist and composer, who often pretends to be P.D.Q Bach, and is one of the cleverest and silliest classical musicians around.


Around the Web

Around the Web: Arranging, Editing, and Rehearsal

A few links gathered from around the web. This week we have a couple of useful tutorials in sound mixing and MIDI orchestration. Although written with games, films or album release, these techniques are equally applicable for theatrical work. I’ve also linked to an excellent post by composer John Adams on taking your compositions into the real world for the first time.

The art of orchestration is a very complex and interesting one. I think that today it can be divided into “classical orchestration” and “MIDI orchestration”. The latter is created with the help of software and samples – check my previous tutorials and quick tips.

Now I think that one rule can be applied to orchestration – when done properly in a classical way, MIDI orchestration becomes piece of cake. Lots of problems will be solved when a nice classical orchestration has been made.

via A Guide to Producing an Epic Orchestral Track.

Home recordings are infamous for having noise. Background noise from outside and indoor noises from the air conditioning and people shuffling around in the next room. Home recording studios are usually never sound isolated enough. Even though you might have a great sounding room, with acoustic treatment carefully placed all over, you’re still going to run into sound isolation issues.

The biggest issue is noise, and in the following tutorial I’ll run through a couple of ways you can minimize the amount of annoying hiss and noise from your home recordings.

via How to Minimize Noise In Your Mixes.

Advice to composers: Try not to panic if you can’t recognize that noise coming from the stage as something you wrote.

via John Adams: Hell Mouth: On surviving a first rehearsal.

Historical Focus

Norman O’Neill – Music to Stage Plays

This is a wonderful old article (it was published in the proceedings of the Royal Musical Association in 1910) which lays out the land for the traditional method of presenting music to a stage play. Norman O’Neill was a composer who wrote prolifically for the theatre, and these musings are the product of an expert knowledge. He was hugely prolific and famous in his day, being the first british composer to conduct his own music for recording, and teaching composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Nowadays, however, he is almost entirely forgotten, perhaps because his output was the theatrical ephemera rather than the monumental symphonies by which composers are usually known.

A Portrait of The Author (via

On History

The essay starts by outlining the rich tradition of English theatrical music, focussing in particular on the works of Shakespeare. By pointing out the wide variety of musical cues alluded to in the text of various plays O’Neill argues that “Shakespeare well knew the value of music to help his dramatic effects and situations.”

Perhaps the most interesting pointers in this first half of the essay is his outlining of the various ensembles which have been common in repertory theatre throughout the ages. He notes that in the Shakespearean theatre tended to use (as far as was known): “a combination of stringed instruments. Sometimes flutes and hautboys were added. Anything more than this in the way of a climax of sound was probably obtained by trumpets and drums.” This is a very practical solution to the problems of outdoor staging, and the remarks on the simplicity of the music: most of it is called for in the dialogue, or otherwise happens at points in which music can be legitimately used (such as fanfares or parties). A turn of the century theatre, however, had a wider range of “house bands”:

Many a conductor in our smaller provincial theatres to-day has less than this at his disposal. In illustration of this perhaps you will allow me to tell the following story. I was once asked to write some music for a play which was to go on tour in our small towns. When I inquired what kind of orchestra I should write for, I was informed that in some places I might find twelve players: this would be considered a great luxury and would only exist in a very prosperous theatre. In others I should constantly find only three players, (pianoforte, cornet, and violin), and so it was necessary to write my music in such a way that it could be performed by any of these noble combinations. Considerable economy of instrumentation and material was necessary, I need hardly say.

Interestingly he notes with sadness that no Elizabethan theatre manuscripts have survived, a sadness compounded by the fact that an unknowingly similar fate awaited him, as his scores are equally unknown.

He, like many writers (myself included) attempted to categorise theatrical music, using the following divisions: The first:-Incidental music-which may or may not be specially composed for the play. The second :-Entr’actes and interlude music. The third :-Music which is specially written for a play, and which is an essential part of the production. The term ” incidental music ” is sometimes, and I think correctly, applied to marches, dances, and songs which are incidental to the action of the play, but it is also applied to what is called ‘Melodrame.’ That is, to music which accompanies the dialogue and reflects the feeling and emotionof the spoken lines”.

He makes a point which is as relevant today, in this world of instant replay and mechanical reproduction, as it was in the days before soundtracks and recorded song: “A short musical interlude played during a change of scene seemed to me exactly the right thing in the right place. This, I think, was specially written by Mr. Crook for the situation. But in a case of this kind there is, of course, no reason why a composition which has not been specially written should not be chosen, that is to say if the right piece for the particular situation, with the right sentiment, can be found. But as I have already pointed out this is rather a dangerous proceeding, on account of the associations which are inevitably bound up in our minds with any well-known pieces of music.” (emphasis mine)

On Working

When a play in which the music is to be an important feature is to be put upon the stage, the composer usually meets the author and the producer and discusses where it will be advisable to introduce music. The producer or “metteur en scene” of a play draws up a plan of the whole action in every detail, the scenic effects, and so forth, which he intends to employ. These will greatly determine the spirit and atmosphere of the production. It is not enough for a composer only to know the play through and through, but he must also be in close touch with the exact spirit in which the work is to be given. Where music is to accompany the dialogue he must, before writing any music, know the tempo of the speeches, the pauses and business to be introduced, so that his music may coincide in the minutest detail with the stage rendering of the play. He will otherwise find his musical effects clashing or coming in the wrong place. Where music accompanies the action and there is no dialogue, as for instance in a procession or entrances of characters, most careful adjustment is necessary, the producer and composer working together and arranging the time that any such effect or business will take on the stage. Where there is no dialogue, the stage business should be timed to the music. Where there is dialogue the music should be timed to the stage. It is obviously much easier for the composer to accompany the actors in speeches, than it would be for actors to follow the music.

When music accompanies dramatic action without dialogue each movement of the actors must be timed to the music, and not only is a great deal of rehearsal usually necessary if the effects are at all elaborate, but what is sometimes more difficult to obtain, mutual sympathy between them and the conductor is essential. Sometimes, as in opera also, the best effects are those which are the most simple. Such effects as the intro- duction of a chorus behind the scenes, or a stage orchestra in conjunction with the orchestra in front, are all hard to obtain in the theatre. They are, of course, most effective if well arranged. We have all probably heard the stage trumpet come to grief in ” Carmen,” or the “Sirens” sing anything but alluringly in “Tannhauser.” In ‘ L’Arlesienne” Bizet avoids this danger by having a small stage orchestra to accompany his hidden chorus. But the dramatic situation will not always allow for that.

In summary: Always follow the dictates of the production, and keep it simple, stupid.

On Orchestration:

All music that actually accompanies the spoken lines should, in my opinion, be mainly scored for strings, which I think mix far better with the human voice than do wood-wind instruments. Harps, horns, and timpani-softly, of course- can also be used effectively, and, to quote Bizet again, the lower notes of the flute also. The fact that the clarinet is not a suitable instrument to accompany the human voice was first brought home to me by Mr. Martin Harvey. I had written for the solo clarinet in the accompaniment of a speech of his. In rehearsal he stopped when he heard this. “Is that a clarinet ?” he said. “Yes,” I replied. “Oh, it sounds like a caricature of my voice !” And this is just the danger with reed instruments.

Horns, harps, and even the brass and percussion can be used in melodrame, but for ordinary purposes the string orchestra is the best, and with regard to the wind, as they say in the Instrumentation primers, “these beautiful instruments should be used sparingly “! As soon as music to the spoken lines becomes too obtrusive it defeats its own end. It is very often impossible for the conductor or the actor to tell if the music is too loud or too soft. The right balance can only be obtained from the theatre. Personally I always listen to the music from the dress circle before the first performance.

On Ensemble

Personally, I very much object to an orchestra in which there are as many wind players as strings. So often in the theatre, music is played which has been scored for an orchestra of at least fifty with three trombones, trumpets, horns, and full wood-wind, against which struggle seven or eight violins, two violas, and two violoncellos. To my mind, it is far belter to do with less wind and brass, and to get something like a proper balance between wind and strings. I will not lay down any hard and fast rule, but for ordinary purposes an orchestra of, say, twenty-six performers should, I think, be constituted in this way :-

  • 4 first violins
  • 3 second violins
  • 2 violas
  • 2 double-basses 
  • 2 violoncellos 
  • 2 horns, 
  • 2 trumpets,
  • 2 clarinets 
  • 1 bassoon
  • 2 flutes 
  • 1 oboe
  • and one trombone or harp and celesta (one player),
  • one percussion.

The harp is more essential in a small orchestra than in a large one. It makes just this difference, I think, it turns what we call a ” theatre band ” into a little orchestra.

But twenty-six performers are a comparative luxury. For a run of a play in which there is no music, and during which the orchestra is only required in the entr’actes, a conductor may consider himself lucky if his management allows him eighteen or even sixteen players. For ordinary purposes an orchestra of eighteen performers should be constituted thus:

  • 4 first violins
  • 2 second violins
  • 1 viola
  • 2 violoncellos
  • 1 bass
  • 1 flute
  • 1 clarinet
  • 1 bassoon
  • 2 horns
  • 1 oboe.
  • 1 trumpet
  • percussion

Of course with only a small orchestra the conductor will find it necessary to arrange nearly all the standard works, and in many cases practically re-score them for his combination of instruments.

His Conclusions

In conclusion I should like to suggest that some of our own younger composers should turn their attention to the modern theatre orchestra. There is an undoubted opening here, as there is a great lack of music well scored for small orchestra. I feel that it would not only benefit them, by bringing their name and work before the public, but at the same time be quite a healthy change from writing for the larger orchestra. A modern musician may gain much experience in the theatre in spite of the necessary limitations connected with the performance and the writing of music for the stage.

My Conclusions!

I wholeheartedly agree! I find it sad that a century later theatrical music is even less of a focus than it was, but his exploration of scoring, orchestration and dramatic interaction are important lessons for all composers young and old.

O’Neill, Norman. “Music to Stage Plays.” Proceedings of the Musical Association 37 (1910): 85-102.
Video of the Week

In the Orchestra Pit

This week’s video isn’t strictly about straight theatre, but it gives a good insight into the lives of those who play music in theatrical settings.

via the Really Useful Website backstage blogs


Vamp, Safety, & Repeat

For a theatrical musician this technique (or bundle of techniques) is the bread and butter of live theatre. These are the buffers that bridge the gap between the prewritten and preplanned score and technology and the unpredictable excitement of the performers and the audience. There are two types of buffer, the Vamp and the Safety Bar/Passage, and while they often look like repeats they are actually very different beasts.

Perhaps we should start with some definitions:


A vamp is a section of music that is repeated several times while dialogue or onstage action occurs. It is usually directed by the conductor’s cue, and as such can cope with the unpredictability of long stretches of dialogue or indeterminable theatrical machinations.


Similar to a vamp, a safety is usually a shorter optional passage designed to accommodate for unplanned hiccups in the performance. Usually added in the score as optional repeats, safeties can occasionally be improvised. As Mark Lubbock recounted in  1957 “the wise conductor arranges a safeguard in the form of a repeat near the end of the number, which can be made if necessary. Then there is the question of music to bring characters on to the stage and actors who miss their entrances and do not appear till the music is nearly finished. One conductor’s solution to this problem was to lean over to his cellos with the instruction, ‘Tremble, boys, ad lib.’, and the gap was filled.”


This is the notation that appears in scores across the spectrum of classical and popular music, and means that the performers play the bracketed section an additional time. It appears mostly as a shorthand used to indicate musical form (multiple verses, repeated exposition in sonata form, etc.) without burdening the performer with unnecessary page turns.


While repeats are found in theatrical music, the most useful tools for a theatrical toolbox are the vamp and the safety.

Vamps can be as short as one beat or as long as a full phrase, but in essence they are a section of music that is looped by the performers while they wait for a cue. This cue can be a line of dialogue, an action, a piece of stagecraft (like a set or prop being flown into place) or the end of an audience reaction. This means that someone (usually a conducter or band leader) is watching and listening to the world around them to decide on the cue for the group, particularly for cues that are a bit nebulous, like the end of audience applause or a scene change. Once the cue has been given the music continues seamlessly into the next section. This is often found in musical theatre as an introduction, with the cue marked as voice last time. This means that the musicians play the music until they hear the vocalist enter, at which point they will continue accompanying the melody.

A safety bar is very similar to a vamp, but is usually only one or two bars long (not a complete phrase) and is hopefully optional. It can be found at the end of a section and exists to cope with emergencies that can arise. For example if a actor needs to enter and sing, or a screen visualisation to get going, a safety can be written in the score. Hopefully the actor will get there on time, and the screen will start on cue, but if they don’t the overall sound will not be compromised. These are slightly tricky to play, as they need good reactions, but they are very useful for safety purposes.


These effects are notated with normal repeat marks at either end of the section to be repeated. This is fine, as long as it is clear how exactly the section should be played. Too often, however, a section of a score will be bracketed with repeat marks, with no indication as to whether the section should be repeated once, vamped until some unknown cue, or simply a section to be repeated only in emergencies. I’ve been guilty of this myself, and it becomes the hardest part of the work to rehearse with the musicians.



The Purposes of Theatrical Music

Music in a play (or to a lesser extent a musical) serves a very different purpose to music in a film or at a concert. In fact, it has a variety of purposes depending on the  play that it is part of.

I have based these purposes on the great book Sound and Music for the Theatre: The Art & Technique of Designby Kaye and Lebrecht. Their main framework divides all theatrical sound into four categories: Framing Cues (overture, intermezzo, preshow sound); underscoring; transitional music/effects (indicating a shift in time or space), and specific cues.

Framing Cues:

These cues exist in the theatre, but not in the narrative of the play. They are used to transition between the outside world and the exciting world of the story. At the most basic it can be a preshow playlist of old recordings to set the atmosphere for a WWII play, to full blown orchestral Overtures and Intermezzos.


A substantial (although often brief) standalone musical work played before the narrative starts. It usually introduces the musical and aesthetic themes of the proceeding drama.


An intermezzo is an piece of music played between scenes or acts. Designed for a practical purpose—to cover a gap while the stage is dark and the set and costumes are changed—it usually also evokes the following scene, or provides a musical reflection on the scene before it.

Many composers and designers no longer use overtures or intermezzos in their work, which is a shame, as some of the greatest works in the canon started life as theatrical framing cues (William Tell Overture, Mendelssohn’s Nocturne).


Underscoring refers to music which plays underneath dialogue and action, without ‘locking in’ with it or standing on its own. Generally quiet and unobtrusive, it supports the onstage action emotionally and atmospherically. It is not usually heard by the characters onstage.

Rather than dealing with melody or structure, many theatrical writers speak of the importance of ‘atmosphere’. This rather nebulous quality is seen as an effort to reflect the setting and feel of the scene through music, and can be seen as the musical equivalent of scenography. I draws from the techniques and functions of underscoring, but develops into a more ambient and unobtrusive sound. Norman O’Neill, a prolific theatre composer, concluded: “Music should step in where the play itself, the actors and the stage effect, can no longer carry on the illusion. And it is just in such cases that the composer can work wonders and create atmosphere and effects which may be unique in their way”

Transitional Music/Effects:

These are used to indicate time or spatial shifts within the narrative. This can be as simple as the “magical harp” found in 80’s TV shows everywhere, to more extended musical cues to indicate the passing of time or the move to a different location.

Specific Cues:

These cues are ones which occur within the world of the characters: they enter a club, so dance music plays; someone sings a song to someone else; the radio is on. Any music which is called for in the script or which occurs within the fictional world onstage (rather than in the theatre full of audience members) can be seen as a specific cue.

What do these mean?

These distinctions are made by writers such as Kaye and Lebrecht based on the narrativistic properties of the music. Does it exist inside or outside the story? The basic division of this is ‘can the character hear it or not?’. However, this then overlooks any more complex music such as melodramas (the subject of an upcoming post) or musical illustration. Likewise, others make the distinctions between exactly reproduced or artistically interpreted sound. The problem with most of these frameworks is that they are based on a modern understanding of acting and drama drawn from the Stanislavski School and the American Schools of Acting: the ‘method’ by which an actor ‘becomes’ the person they are playing, and is ‘motivated’ by the cues and people around them. Theories like this are influenced by filmic theories such as diegesis as well as filmic ideas of realism. This is also seen in early 21st century frameworks, such as many of those presented by Ross Brown (Sound: A Reader in Theatre Practice), that insist that the stage-technician must ‘feel’ the sounds to imbue it with the correct magical qualities. While these frameworks make sense when dealing with sound and music for contemporary modern theatre, these divisions break down rapidly when looking at anything from an earlier era, or when the division between ‘world’ and ‘entertainment’ isn’t as clear. They also break down when looking at any modern form of theatre which is not based on psychological realism (as many forms are).

However, these divisions provide a useful way of thinking about the music for the theatre, and can be used by composers, designers or directors as a framework for setting out their project.

art composition music writing writing2010

An Agnus Dei in a Dei or Two

Well, I’m a couple of days later than promised, which isn’t very good, but I have been beavering away on a second choral composition, and have got it to a state where I can share my thoughts about it.

This week’s work has been a setting of the Agnus Dei, the text of which can be found at the bottom of the post.

This setting is more of a lullaby, and stays fairly quiet and gentle. There is only one time signature change at this time, and that is just to create a faux pause towards the end. Otherwise it maintains a lilting three beat, which i have intended to convey a sort of manger-side lullaby or rocking cradle, much like some good old-fashioned carols.

Oddly, this piece has one of the clearer structures I’ve written, while all the time blurring the divisions between sections. I like the piece because it leads you to expect certain things, and instead challenges these expectations by changing the ideas. There are a couple of places where the harmonic end of one section is the beginning of the next.

Stylistically i tried to move into a more accessible range, drawing from the modal language of the Kyrie, as well as the modality of some renaissance music. Hence the Tierce de Picardie which hits you over the head at the end. Also the romanticisms of the English choral school is present, with some nice (approximately) diatonic chromatic and leading notes falling throughout the work. Although these two roots seem incompatible, they seem to fit in interesting ways, as each mode of tension and release can be swapped with the other, meaning you can blend elements of style by purpose, rather than theory.

The middle section sits quite low on all the voices, particularly the sopranos, and should end up with a dark, low and deep timbre, which could sound quite nice against the higher and more lyrical sections at the beginning and end. Again I wrote for unaccompanied choir, this time not even going beyond the four lines, (no split parts), and I am enjoying the tone and harmonic resonance a choir can create without a more rhythmical instrument accompanying.

Thinking ahead to the next few movements it would be good to experiment with some energy and rhythm, perhapps adding an organ accompaniment. Organ seems fitting considering the sacred intentions and traditions behind this work. I have no ideas for the next few movements, but the point is that I have a deadline, so I’m sure the ideas will come.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem.

If you want to have a look/listen and give me some feedback or thoughts, just let me know and I’ll send something through. I don’t want to make them public just yet, but when the project is up I’ll make them available to view and listen in a non downloadable format.