Music and sound

Music and sound aren’t just used in musicals. Live or recorded music can add a lot to a dramatic production. Music and sound effects can be used to:

  • create mood and atmosphere
  • build tension
  • strengthen an emotion or empathise the action onstage
  • help set the scene
  • indicate a change of time or location
  • focus attention on to a particular character

When music is played beneath a scene and used to help create mood, this is called underscoring. For example, a scene on a deserted road at night might be underscored by spooky music and sound effects to help create an atmosphere of fear. Watch this clip where composer, Michael Price describes how he uses various sounds to reflect the emotions expressed in a scene from the BBC drama, Sherlock.

Make sure that the music enhances your drama and doesn’t detract from what’s happening onstage. Some plays work best without any music at all so it must never be added for its own sake. A director must consider the style of their production and select music and sound to complement that. Some playwrights specify the music they want to be used in their scripts. The playwright, Tennessee Williams, specified the use of blues music in several of his plays.

Physical theatre often uses a lot of music to accompany the movement work onstage. As it’s often closely related to dance, this is important in giving work energy, pace and rhythm.

In non-naturalistic work, music might be used ironically so that it’s playing against the content onstage. This makes a statement on what is happening onstage. For example, a character has made some terrible decisions and is in despair. His misery is underscored by a very happy piece of music which only serves to emphasise his pain through irony. Using music in this way can be very useful when creating comic work and employing ‘black humour’

This technique is used in the 1992 film, Reservoir Dogs directed by Quentin Tarantino. A brutal torture scene is juxtaposed with the playing of a cheerful pop song, Stuck in the Middle with You, on the soundtrack.