Posted on March 6, 2016 at 6:18 pm

I read an article last year about a middle-aged guy who was learning, for the first time, to drive. His realization was this: Driving is not particularly difficult, it’s just incredibly dangerous. This is more or less what I think about music in the theater.

It is actually music’s simplicity that makes it so potent. Music changes the molecular structure of a room completely, and the volume and density of the sound are almost irrelevant. Play a single note quietly on a piano in the middle of a scene, and the air becomes charged instantly, freighted with expectation. That first note is like a boulder at the top of a hill, gently tumbling forward – no matter what else is happening on stage, that boulder’s journey is now part of the story. Almost immediately, our brains start scanning the landscape to find the bottom of the hill. Music is always going somewhere, and even when we’re not consciously processing it, our bodies are connected to it, searching out the rhythmic patterns and melodic contours – where will it land? Is it going where I think it’s going to go?

A composer’s job is to know where the boulder’s going to land before he or she tips it down the mountain. If you’re going to play that first note, you have to be aware of the consequences. Anyone can play a single note on the piano accidentally, but a composer makes the decision to play it, and takes responsibility for everything that comes afterward. It’s not difficult, but it’s incredibly dangerous.

Songwriters have a particular burden in this regard, because an audience’s understanding of the word “song” involves a specific structure and a certain kind of resolution. A song, in a contemporary audience’s mind, is a) repetitive and b) contained. Without the comforts of that repetition and containment, an audience becomes unsettled; they have lost sight of the boulder, but they know it’s still rolling, and they start getting anxious because they can’t get their bearings. An audience that is left in that state for too long gives up, gets bored, stops paying attention. That boulder’s journey is a story in and of itself, and these two things, repetition and containment, work together to guide an audience through that story.

By containment, I’m saying that a song is about One Thing. A song in a musical almost always has to accomplish many things at once, but in order for it to be effective, all of those things have to be contained in one idea. Before you start writing, you have to answer the question: What is this song about? Dramatically, the song is about a character, or a group of characters, expressing a need, a desire, an understanding. A song is not just about the words, though. What story is the music going to tell? What is the music about?

If we’re writing a musical together and you say to me, “Write a song about how Timmy wants a dog,” I am already hearing music. I can go to the piano or the guitar at that moment and begin playing, because I know enough about Timmy and the world he lives in to have an instinct about what his emotional life sounds like. I know, let’s say, that it’s 1955, that we’re in a small town in the Midwest, that Timmy is eleven years old, that the dog Timmy wants is ultimately going to save his life. Change any of those pieces of information and my musical instincts change. It’s 1980, we’re in Paris, Timmy is forty years old, he wants to use the dog for meat. Every one of those variables changes my sense of how the song is supposed to sound.

In making musical decisions, there are three primary considerations: tempo, texture and language. When we describe a genre of music, we are generally describing the combination of all three of those things – a Strauss waltz, for example, is going to be in 3/4 time at a deliberate but not plodding tempo, with an orchestral texture, in a primarily tonal but occasionally chromatic language. Alter any of those elements and it stops being a Strauss waltz and becomes something else – in this case, texture is somewhat malleable (you could play it on piano or woodwind quintet and it will still carry a chunk of its “Strauss waltz” DNA; banjos and harmonicas, maybe not so much), but tempo is certainly not, and language is fully integral to the genre (if you take away all the chromatic harmonies and make the piece entirely modal, it will sound amateurish and incomplete). To choose another example, an 80’s new wave rock song is going to be at a fast, un-swinging 4/4 tempo, with synthesized drums and keyboards and electric guitars for the texture, and the language will be entirely modal and harmonically static. Here, texture is essential – play the song with acoustic guitars and violins and it no longer says “new wave” – but language may be a little more open to variation.

Therefore, when I’m making a decision about the musical story I’m going to tell, my first port of call is to pick the tempo, the texture and the language; as in my examples about Timmy and the dog, the dramatic story is going to guide those choices. It’s part of the composer’s job to tell the audience that it’s 1955, it’s the Midwest, and that Timmy is eleven. You can go to the piano and start playing a Strauss waltz, but then you’ve derailed the story. To return to my poor tortured metaphor, you have sent the boulder off in an entirely different direction than the rest of the show, and your audience will be confused. Of course, you may want the audience to be confused because that’s part of your master plan for how you tell this particular story, but the point is that while these musical choices may be instinctive, they must not be arbitrary. In the theater, the composer’s job is to make decisions that will effectively tell the story.

The matter of repetition is more technical than creative. I find this immensely comforting – the structure of a song is a map that tells me how long it takes to get the boulder down the hill. That journey can be measured in structural blocks rather than time, but a rough inference of time can be made just by drawing the map. By the time I start writing, I know I’ve got somewhere between three and seven minutes to get my point across. The simpler the point, the shorter the trip.

Contemporary song form generally follows a verse-chorus structure, in which the verse (“When you’re down and troubled…”), the chorus (“You just call out my name…”) and the bridge (“Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend…”) follow each other in a specific order which maximizes repetition without getting monotonous. That order is Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus. If you consider the verse and chorus as a unified element, you could think of this an AABA form.

There are plenty of occasions where I mess with that structure, introducing new elements or deleting sections, but I try to hang on to the essential concept of “sufficient repetition without monotony.” I have to let a musical idea be heard enough times for the audience to grasp it and connect to it, but not let that idea be repeated so often that they get bored of it.

The complicating factor in the theater is that characters, as a rule, can’t sit in one place emotionally while they’re singing – music is such a dynamic force that it pushes characters out of one state of mind and into another; theatrical music, by mere dint of its presence, is active. Pop songwriters and playwrights can get sandbagged by musical theater specifically because of this issue – the pop writer aims deliberately for the repetition, the “hook,” and is not used to accommodating a character’s emotional transformation; the playwright is frustrated by the need to repeat a musical gesture even after the character has already verbally expressed the dramatic thrust of the moment. How do we balance our character’s need to move forward with our musical need to repeat ideas and generate structure? This is the Great Musical Theater Balancing Act, and there are a number of tricks that composers use to negotiate this issue – a grand modulation before the final chorus is a total cliché but alarmingly effective – but a composer and a lyricist have to work very closely together to ensure that the story keeps going all the way through the song. Unquestionably, part of why audiences respond to songs is that the repetition is intoxicating, hypnotic – we are in a world and we don’t want to step out of it. But the drama cannot stop just because the music started; all of the stories have to be told together.

A perfect theatrical song is not the same as a perfect pop song, nor is it the same as a perfect operatic aria. The kind of storytelling that happens in a musical is specific to the form, where the journeys of the characters on stage determine the pace and tone of the storytelling. The composer of a musical, therefore, has to constantly negotiate between the sheer musical pleasures that the audience (and the composer!) desires and the basic storytelling that the audience is following. Containment and repetition are guideposts to help the composer thread that needle.

One of the wonderful things about music is that it can lead us unknowingly to extraordinary places, parts of our hearts that we can seemingly only access when the song is playing. But that is also the trap – within the confines of a musical play, the characters can’t run in a different direction just because the music wants to go there; the composer has to control the boulder’s trajectory or the characters get lost and the audience becomes bewildered. Surprisingly difficult, it turns out, but incredibly gratifying.

[Previously published in The Dramatist, Fall 2015]

Copyright 2015 Jason Robert Brown. All rights reserved.