On Audiences

The main difference between theatre music and music for film or games or festivals isn’t the technology or the venue, it’s the fact that theatre is performed for a live and responsive audience. It may not seem like this would affect sound and music, but coping with audience reaction is a vital part of balancing and cuing music and sound. For example, if a show encourages laughter (say, by being funny) or applause (say, by being a blatant star vehicle), sound or music cues can be, and probably need to be, louder to ride over the higher level of ambient sound. Perhaps more important is the ability of almost every element of the theatre to time itself to anything. If the audience decides to give a standing ovation at the end of the song, the band can pause between sections, or the lights can give them a cue to sit back down again. As well as those positive occasions, the audience can do idiotic or distracting things that a prerecorded sequence cannot cope with. Take for example this anecdote from the Guardian Theatre Blog: (Great play – shame about the audience | Stage |

“Then, at the most heart-stopping, breath-holding moment in the play – when one character opens a letter written to her by her recently deceased boyfriend – an audience member in front of me abruptly stood up and loudly declared, twice, to his companion that he was off to get a coffee, before banging his way out of the theatre. For a second everyone – both actors and audience – seemed stunned. To the actors’ enormous credit, they both managed to hold on to the pause and continue, more or less as if nothing had happened.”

If this was the kind of play which was timed precisely to a audio or video track the entire production would be unsynchronised until someone could rescue it. People (rather than machines) are able to improvise in these situations, creating theatrical magic out of humdrum hiccoughs.

The nature of the audience also dictates the nature of the music or sound that you use. Certain audiences appreciate complex difficult music, while other audiences call for simpler, more catchy, or less obtrusive sound. In reality a production will call for mix of complicated “serious” music and lighthearted or straightforward ambience depending on the mood of the narrative. In these circumstances music can have a cathartic role: after a particularly gruelling scene in, say, Hamlet, in which ghosts, poison and murder have appeared, the audience is in danger of being over-stretched emotionally. The entrance of Rosencrantz and Guildernstern is usually accompanied by something quirky or funny, giving the audience a chance to relax and enjoy the narrative. Otherwise, they get exhausted from three hours of blood, feelings and soliloquies. A well balanced score for any complex play will usually contain a full mix of tragic, supernatural and escapist compositions.

To finish, I’ll leave you with a remark by Norman O’Neill. He let’s slip that even a century ago audiences were not conducive to good theatre, and were prepared to listen to the serious only if it was balanced with irreverence. And also that audiences can be the worst thing about working in the theatre or concert platform (more on that later this week…)

“I think the only place where it is possible to play music of a more serious nature is at the beginning of the programme, before the people of the stalls and dress circle arrive. I have often remarked that the pit and gallery will listen quietly to a movement of a symphony just after they enter the theatre. This is usually about half an hour before the commencement of the play, and the stalls in front of them are still empty and the house quiet. Later in the evening they have the distracting head-dresses and evening gowns between them and the orchestra, which it is then almost impossible to hear at all from the pit on account of the talking stalls.”


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.