Composing Incidental Music for Live Theatre

Composing Incidental Music for Live Theatre

I am convinced that live theatre is one of the most easily accessible and under-utilized outlets for composers today. It can help composers develop long-lasting professional relationships with other creative artists, it encourages the exploration of new musical languages and compositional techniques, and it can serve as an effective training ground for composers who hope to eventually score film. Best of all, it is comparatively easy to break into and can be done from virtually anywhere. I hope that the information that follows will serve as a helpful guide to those trying to get started in this field, and maybe also win over a few who have not considered it before.


What does the theatre have to offer a composer? Can it really be creatively and/or financially rewarding? How does one get involved in this? There are lots of important questions to be considered. I’ll start by addressing the biggest and most far-reaching issue: collaboration. This is the great blessing and curse of theatre. The composer must understand from the outset that the music is not the art. The production is the work of art, in which the music plays only a supporting part. This is a difficult adjustment for many composers to make. To write a brilliant melodic gesture only to have it cut because it draws attention away from the dialogue; to have a great bit of counterpoint buried under the hiss of a fog machine; to have to compose little fragments to cover scene changes: these are all reminders that the audience came to see a play, not hear your music.

Still from Richard II

No matter how clever your music is, if it doesn’t support and clarify the story you are trying to tell, it isn’t doing its job. This is not to say that there are not moments where the music comes to the fore. I remember a moment in a production of Richard II when a particularly difficult costume change led to a wonderful musical catharsis that turned out to be one of the highlights of the show. The point is that music takes its place along with lighting, costume, and scenery as an equal participant in a larger, more synergistic endeavor.

Working with a creative team can be very exciting. You see costume sketches, fabric swatches, set models, and then get to figure out how the sound of the play will fit into these design concepts. You get ideas you wouldn’t have had by yourself. You build relationships with creative artists of all types who (hopefully) develop a respect for your work. It can also be frustrating. Not having the final word on your own creative output can be a hard pill to swallow. When the director says it isn’t right, you rewrite it—even if you know you are making it worse. If all the designers except you are in agreement, then you have to know when to fall into step and be a team player for the good of the show. The bottom line when deciding whether to get into this field or not is to know your own personality and your willingness to relinquish some of your control over things. For composers who enjoy collaboration, there can be no more rewarding activity than a good theatrical production.

Getting the Gig

For those brave enough to venture into this field, the opportunities are surprisingly numerous. Theatres at all levels welcome the opportunity to work with composers. If you want the experience, introducing yourself to the director at the local community theatre or college will likely generate immediate interest. Most directors are simply unaware of the possibility of original music and are delighted at the prospect. Bring a CD of your music along and you may get offered work on the spot. In settings like this, you will often have to work for free, or for a few hundred dollars. Once you have a few successful productions under your belt, you may be able to move up to larger university productions and regional professional theatres. These pay better, and (more importantly) usually have higher production values, so you’ll end up being happier with the final product.

The Process

Assuming you get your foot in the door and are asked to write original music for a production, here are a few pointers about what to expect.

You’ll need to meet with the director (and, perhaps, other designers) to establish a clear understanding of what the director’s concept is for the show. Ideally, this would happen early in the design stage, but far too often, the composer is brought on last, so you may be required to quickly acclimate to conceptual ideas that are already in play.

The next step is to write some sketches and play them for the director for feedback. They can be very general (“Is this an appropriate palate of sounds for the Indians?”) or somewhat specific (“Every time Sir Toby enters, I thought we might use something like this.”). The purpose here, though, is to make sure that you and the director are seeing eye-to-eye on the broad concepts of timbre, style, and instrumentation. Nothing is more frustrating than spending hours or days writing a large cue and then having it rejected because the director has a different sound in his head. Find this out quickly at the beginning by writing a handful of short sketches that capture the various elements of the show, and once these are agreed upon, then move on to writing the real cues.

Now you will set to the task of churning out cues. Depending on the production schedule and the rehearsal needs of the show, you may have as long as a few weeks or as little as a few days to do this. During this stage of the process, there are a few important skills that you should keep in mind.

Stay in close touch with the director. Play even the smallest cue for the director the moment it is finished. Ask the director how the show is going. Drop in on rehearsals personally whenever possible.

Plan a rigid composing schedule for yourself that takes into consideration the needs of the production. Cues that must be sung, played, or danced to by actors should always come first. Cues that will cover scenic, lighting, or costume changes should come fairly late, since the length of these cues will inevitably change when the technical matters are introduced. Once you have a complete cue list for the show, determine a realistic schedule of when each cue will be ready and then stick to it. Of course the director, choreographer, lighting designer, and cast will all want to have the music immediately (or sooner), but knowing when you’ll get it to them helps them plan their rehearsal schedule and (hopefully) keeps them off your back while you write.

Be prepared to re-write cues as often as needed. Remember that, in all matters, the director gets final say. As a designer, you can feel free to lobby for a specific idea you have that you hope will work, but if the director vetoes it, you should accept it graciously. Failing to understand this is a sure way to never get work in theatre again. As a practical matter, I like to make a large spreadsheet with the status of each cue (not begun, in progress, approved, etc.) on a server where it can be checked at any time by anyone involved. This helps ensure that everyone is always informed.

Now you will need to integrate the finished cues into the production. Since each play will be different, there is no reliable rule as to how this will happen. If the music is to be pre-recorded (either from sessions or samples) then you will need to provide final versions in high-quality format to the sound designer. In some cases, you may be asked to serve as the sound designer yourself. Typically, levels and timings are set during technical rehearsals a few days before the play opens. Always be prepared that something will have to be frantically rewritten at the last minute. Likewise, one or two of your favorite cues are likely to be cut. Just grin and take it. You can include that piece in the concert suite you make later.

Revenue and Business Matters

As with any endeavor, there are some unavoidable business and practical matters that must be addressed. Here are a few of the most important ones.

  • Contracts: You should make sure that you sign a contract for any show you do, no matter how small. It should include the amount they are paying you, and whether music production costs come out of your pay or not. Also make sure that they add some statement indicating that you retain the copyright ownership of your works and are free to create derivative works.

  • Royalties: Theatrical productions fall into the category of “grand rights” and, as such, ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC cannot legally collect royalties on them for you. If you feel it is warranted, you may negotiate with the presenting organization for a percentage as part of your contract, but this is not typically done for small or short-run productions. If you would like more information about grand rights, see Jack Vees’s article, “Deal or No Deal: A Grand Rights Primer.”

  • Derivative Works: One of the best things about writing for theatre is how many possibilities there are for subsequent incarnations of the music. Here are just a few, but more will inevitably occur to you:

    • Renting the score to other theatres who are producing the same play.

    • Creating a concert work based on the music from the piece.

    • Making a CD of the incidental music to sell in the lobby of the theatre.

Preparing Yourself

Still from Antony and Cleopatra

Theatre professionals tend to be extremely intelligent and well-read in the arts. A working knowledge of history, art, painting, sculpture, literature, music, drama, language, politics, and pop culture is almost a prerequisite. I listen very carefully in production meetings and jot down any terms or concepts I’m not familiar with and then Google them so that I show up for the next meeting prepared. While directors often have a surprisingly broad grasp of musical styles and genres, their ability to discuss it is usually fairly non-technical. Be prepared to spend some time figuring out what they mean by things like “It should be more slanted” or “I’d like it campier.”

Creatively speaking, theatre presents a constantly changing array of challenges. Every production must be approached on its own terms, and new solutions must be invented at every turn. I have written music for live musicians, done recording sessions for productions, used sequencers and samplers when the budget or design concept made it advisable, and even sat onstage and played the piano. There is no right way to score a show, and good solutions can only be seen in context. As a case in point, I received an email from a director before doing Antony and Cleopatra saying, “I’m seeing oil drums onstage,” to which I replied, “Can the actors play them?” This simple exchange shaped the sound concept for the entire production and even influenced the costumes (which had to have timpani mallets built into them).

Perhaps the best training that theatre supplies is an in-depth study into the mystifying relationship between music and drama. What notes do I have to change to take something sad and make it wistful? How do you end a scene-change cue in a way that propels the actors into the action that follows? When is silence better? How can I show the subtext with harmony? The answers to these questions occupy me in much of my work, both in the theatre and elsewhere. What little I know, I have learned here “in the trenches”—experimenting with instrumentation, rhythm, dynamics—reaching towards an ephemeral goal of perfectly matching music to drama. It still mostly eludes me, but the pursuit is rewarding.

And then there are the people. Working in a professional theatre inevitably leads to extremely close and long-lasting relationships, the benefits and rewards of which can extend far beyond the production at hand. Directors prefer to work with people whom they trust (both personally and artistically) and will freely recommend you to others to help your career advance. I can say that, for me personally, the friendships I have made through work in theatre are some of the most fulfilling and lasting I have known.


Stephen Lias

The works of Stephen Lias have been performed widely in the United States and abroad. As a theatre composer, Lias has composed original music for over thirty professional productions including I Hate Hamlet at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Death of a Salesman at Auburn University at Montgomery. He has served for ten years as composer and Music Director at the Texas Shakespeare Festival.

Lias is the area coordinator for music theory and composition at Stephen F. Austin State University. He serves on both the Texas and National Boards of the National Association of Composers/USA, and is the Founder and Director of The Center for the Promotion of Contemporary Composers (CPCC). He is the Texas delegate to the International Society of Contemporary Music.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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