Diegesis is a term used in film music to discribe the way in which the elements of film relate to the narrative the film is telling. In film music, it is simple way of describing the function of music: if it occurs within the world of the characters (i.e. someone could hear it) it is diegetic, if it occurs in the world of the audience (but the characters cannot hear/see it) it is non-diegetic.
How can you use it?
It’s not a technique as such, rather a lens though which you can look at your music. Although the script will usually give hints as to the most obvious diegetic cues, you can shift this factor to make your work more interesting: rather than a standard piece of underscore, you could make it play from a gramophone or radio during the scene; or you could use on-stage musician (such as a string quartet in a restaurant) to accompany and set the tone of a scene.
Blurring the line
Of course, the most exciting use of this technique involves the blurring of the line between the diegetic and the non-diegetic. This is particularly easy to accomplish in films (such as Philip Glass playing the background of the Truman Show, or the entrace of the brass band in My Fair Lady) but it can also take place in the theatre. West Side Story has a famous scene in which a jukebox is turned on and plays a recording of the music to an earlier scene, this then segues into “live” underscoring played by the pit orchestra. However, we still believe that the music is ‘coming’ from the jukebox (a consequence of Schitzophonia) albiet with a richer and more visceral style. This effect, the transition from one frame of reference to another, enhances the performance and gives the scene much more impact. Ironically, blurring or transitioning across the real/non-real line can make the performance seem more real by assisting or refreshing the willing suspension of disbelief.
Although not a technique as such, diegesis is an important factor in the construction of theatrical artifice. It can be used to change the perspective on a scene and to freshen an otherwise stale or unorginal cue, or to draw attention to or distract from a musical or theatrical element. Next time you are struggling with a music cue, think about whether you can change its position in the narrative frame to make it more interesting. At the very least this will give you some creative inspiration, at most an entire new way of presenting your score and sounds.
Feature pieces are pieces which stand apart from the fabric of the performance in some way, often contributing traditional musical structures and thematic writing to provide some variation to the musical score. When suites or albums are made of theatrical scores (Peer Gynt, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) they are usually drawn from the feature pieces, as they are the cues that translate best into concert form.
Works outside the Narrative
These are pieces which the characters cannot hear. They are used to introduce or contextualse scenes for the audience, and to fill up time between scenes or acts. Aside from the most common types, Overtures and Intermezzos, these feature pieces can include Entr’actes, Curtain Call music, Exit music, interval music, preshow playlist and many other genres.
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.
Works within the narrative
These include songs, fanfares, dances, montages (although these are closer to underscore), ballets, background radio, jukebox, characters that perform, and other musical works that the characters can engage or interact with. Shakespeare makes great use of these and they provide many great moments in theatrical performances.
There are no great tricks to the composition of feature pieces for the theatre. Each composition is naturally governed by the requiremnts of the script and of the performance venue, but in general they allow composers to flex their creative muscles and present music that is distinctive or memorable, and emerge from the supporting foundation to which it is normally accustomed.
Underscoring (the process of accompanying speech or action with sound or music) as a science as much as it is an art. It requires a careful understanding of the action onstage and a sensitive tailoring of the music to interweave exactly with the narrative of word and action. Nowadays we are far more familiar with this technique as a filmic convention, but underscoring theatrical scenes involves a set of skills not needed for the predetermined world of the edited film.
Perhaps we should start with a short definition:
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.
It is similar to the technique of Melodrama, a form of writing that interlocks musical ideas with complex dialogue or action, but can be seen as a smaller component of melodrama: underscoring does not usually peek it’s head above the ramparts of the dialogue, instead providing a firm emotional foundation.
Perhaps the most important factor for the creation of underscoring is volume. Unlike in film music, where you absolute control of volume in recording, live music can easily overwhelm speech if badly written.
Perhaps the best thing to bear in mind is to keep the music as distraction-free as possible. This means not writing jaunty and catchy tunes or distinctively rhythmical accompaniment patterns.
The other area of techniques, aside from compositional, lies in the orchestration. If the spoken word is un-amplified you have to be careful not to overwhelm it with brass or percussion instruments. Some instruments (strings are traditional) are able to play at very quiet dynamics without strongly accented articulation, and so are able to maintain a low sound level over long periods of time. Other instruments such as flutes and some tuned percussion can also sustain quiet passages, but many other reed and brass instruments are difficult or tiring to maintain a consistent quiet pitch. Experimentation and intuition are the key.
Audio technology is often used in a theatrical context because it presents complete control and reliability. A case in point is volume control: unlike acoustic instruments, it is possible to reduce the volume of any recorded sound without significantly altering the timbre. In practical terms this provides composers with increased musical resources for underscoring, as any instruments which would previously dominate a spoken voice (such as a brass fanfare beneath a stirring speech) can be reduced in volume without losing the emotive qualities of the music.
However, using technological shortcuts can often result in a lessening of the impact that well-written underscoring can have. The embodied presence of live musicians interacting and locking in with the emotional arc of the narrative can create a more powerful performance than a accompanying recording. If done well this can be an enormously powerful technique for many different styles of theatre, but is perhaps more difficult in a live and acoustic setting. The challenges are worth it though!
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
and one trombone or harp and celesta (one player),
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
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.
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.
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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/765702.
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.