Plays by Ear: Music in Playwriting

Featured Image: Notes for Lt Brown by Maskull Lassere (by kind permission)

Many workers use music while they work, if they can. It lends a focus and concentration, allows measurement of time (which passes differently when there’s music in it anyway) and has an effect on mood. It can get you into a zone quickly. It eases effort and provides pleasure and comfort if not motivation.

The body likes music. That’s why you’ll find it at fitness and yoga studios. Music can allow a measurement of units of work, and a breaking up of tasks that makes the labour itself more approachable. Unfortunately the conventions of cinema and television have dulled our collective creativity when we think about what music might go with what activity. Taste is a factor too but there are common-sense types and margins of use – you probably won’t be listening to Enya as you slam through that last set at the gym, free jazz when you’re trying to relax with a cup of tea, or Muppet music when you’re making love. Could be fun though.

This, however, is about music, lyricism and the work of playwriting. I’m going to talk about my own practice, because I can’t speak with any authority about anybody else’s right now. It’s something I’d like to investigate further. My research continues into Composed Theatre “in which principles of music are applied to the expressive means of the theatre.” (Roesner 2010, 294) but in creative practice, music may also work on me in ways I can only apprehend, rather than comprehend. I’m lucky enough to be able to work in both music and theatre. My musical practice takes in composition, lyric writing, songwriting, recording and performance. I delight in watching musicians practice process and perform product. I play by ear.

By comparison, playwriting is really boring to watch. You will find few compelling cinematic montages of a playwright at work, because it’s all interior.  For me, music’s always been there: I almost always write with music on. Often instrumental, it surrounds the initial ideas, the labour of developing them, and is often in the scripts themselves. My earlier plays were completely non-verbal — music-driven on the page and stage. Sometimes a potential soundtrack existed before the scenes they were bound to support. Even if it’s driven by music, a non-verbal play still requires a lot of words. This musical disposition has continued into the writing of scripts more recognisable as ‘drama’.

One of my current projects is a piece called The Holidays. My work on it during 2017 was soundtracked by a short album of instrumentals called Bridge Music by American musician John Ross, under the name Eerie Gaits. There’s little writing around or about this music. It’s been labelled ambient, but that word has gathered some unuseful connotations that push it closer to what most people think of as muzak. Erik Satie composed musique d’ameublement – “furniture music” – music that you weren’t meant to notice you were using. It’s possible he was joking, but he kind of started it. I’ve written a play to his music too.

Notes for Lt Brown by Maskull Lasserre

Notes for Lt Brown by Maskull Lassere

Brian Eno is considered a progenitor of the term ‘ambient music’, a form that exists “…on the cusp between melody and texture, and whose musical logic was elusive enough to reward attention, but not so strict as to demand it.” In discussing the synthesiser’s compositional role in such music, said “it comes without any baggage…You’re designing a new instrument. That’s what the synthesiser is essentially. It’s a constantly unfinished instrument. You finish it when you tweak it, and play around with it, and decide how to use it. You can combine a number of cultural references into one new thing.” All these ideas, on reflection, are less about instrumentation, but more about how instrumental this sort of music may be as an environmental factor in the creation of new work.

But I wasn’t thinking theoretically when Eerie Gaits caught my ear. I just found this music and loved it. It has a shape, but an indeterminate purpose or context. No words nail it down. Simple acoustic instrumentation carries elegant, repetitive pastoral tunes over soft, deep wefts. Sometimes it’s only one or the other. It’s spacious and intimate. It settled into my writing routine, which is more like snatched and wee hours than anything regular. Perhaps by osmosis these qualities of depth and simplicity carried over into the creative process. The play is currently a finalist in the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award, a recognition bearing further creative development. Once longlisted, I pitched the play to the selection panel using some visuals, tactiles and piece of Eerie Gaits. Maybe this music opened the door to the world of the play.

L y r i c i s m

Being a lyricist – writing words that will be most fully realised when integrated with another element, rather than being designed to stand on their own – is a good principle to practice as a playwright. It might also give your writing a songfulness.

Eventually the words in your play will combine in innumerable ways with the other artforms that comprise theatre & performance. It’s a kind of doublethink – your marks on the page may seem foundational at this stage, but in their final iteration they may not even be perceivable. Just as some people listen mainly to the tune and don’t care so much about the specific lyrics of songs, the words of a playwright may be the last thing on an audience’s mind.

a song doesn’t exist to convey the meaning of the words, rather the words exist to convey the meaning of the song (Frith 1996, 166)

Being a lyricist means that writing other peoples’ voices is a familiar stretch, and one must generate many in a play. Voices and stretches. Each character has a range of voices within them depending on the undercurrents of any given scene, and these can represent themselves kind of musically. Visit a land where the tongue is not your own and you will immediately hear that conversations possess polyphonies, polyrhythms, motifs, accidental assonances, riffs and themes (and like music they’re collaboratively generated). A playwright seeks to simulate these complexities while making it seem easy. But you don’t have to be musical expert to get a vibe for what’s going on.

I Just go where they lyric leads. It leads me. That’s how I mean a song writes me more than I write it. Do you follow? (Sammy Cahn in Zollo, 30)

The act of writing a lyric is also associative. The words themselves may lead the way, rather than anything anybody’s trying to say. Including the playwright. If you’re not bound to using words exclusively to reveal or conceal ‘meaning’ that is, if you’re prepared to log off logos, meaning can emerge, rather than being imposed. Much western drama is based in the idea that no-one ever says what they mean anyway.

The ever-shifting zones of ‘who knows what, when’ is a key part of the fun of theatre, in creation and reception. Taking a musical approach (where words don’t rule) can include the process of the playwright in this dynamic.  The encounter of a conversation is a very different proposition to the same words written down or reflected upon. It’s not always like this – words are amazing tools and can be sharpened to great precision – but if you but if you loosen their power to generate specific meaning  and allow them to flow more musically, you may surprise yourself. And if you want your play to be surprising to audiences, rather than predictable, maybe surprising yourself is a good start.

Being a lyricist also enables daily practice in brevity and condensation of language – what’s the least I can say to say what needs to be said, and how can that little ‘say’ a lot?

(a principle I haven’t really employed in this piece)

David Roesner observes that “Quite often the musicality dispositif, as I have described it, is characterised by polarities or paradoxes.” (2014:257)

The musicality of language, which allows the words to structure themselves in terms of rhythm and sonority, rather than being slaves to meaning, also has a role to play for a playwright. Obviously you want your words to roll trippingly off tongues, so you’re aiming for an ease of production that makes the very difficult seem graceful.

This also means that the dynamic of generating more text than you need, in the knowledge that cutting it down will improve it, is a foundational, rather than a foreign concept. If a song lyric is longer than a page, it’s usually too long. You need to leave room for the “infinite suggestiveness” of music (Juslin 2001, 48).

I suggest this is useful for a playwright to have in mind during the act of creation. It’s not unusual for me to try to condense a scene to a single page if I can – essentially this means I’m cutting it while I’m writing it. If the writing overflows on to the next page, than maybe the scene has more to say.

The compressed space of a lyric – three verses, a chorus and a bridge, if you’re lucky – means that components such as symbolic order, narrative (in the most open sense of the word) development must emerge and grow with a balance of strength and tenderness, speedy determination and deceptive effortlessness.

It’s a playwright’s job to write robust subtleties that unfold in an accelerated timeframe. It’s the process, production and performance’s job to create collaborative responses that transcend the initial score. Positioning the play between polarities and playing with paradoxes is the practice of the playwright.

It’s been remarked that a performer in a Beckett play is “not so much an interpreter of his text as an actual instrument.” (Buning et al 1997 285)

African Weaving

Formatting and Patterns

All this brevity leaves a lot of white space on the page, so there’s a visual, or sculptural element to the work of a playwright. Black words on a white background. Poetry is playful in this way. When I have worked as a screenwriter, I’ve been keenly aware of the set layout. You write into a widely accepted format. The page is shaped for you, its justification most likely enshrined by some computer program.

Maybe that’s why so many TV and movies feel like they’ve been written by robots. (You’ve probably noticed that plays can be pretty boring too)

There are similar options for the playwright (perhaps depending on your language, the time you live in and national playwriting culture, certain fashions or expectations) but it seems a more open field in terms formatting. I’ve read some really interesting plays that have unattributed dialogue – that is, the character names are simply dashes.

Screenwriting also has narrative conventions which are far more formulaic than theatre, which builds different overall patterns. There are good reasons for this, of course, but playwriting seems to be a practice where you’ll find more variety, not only in the way pages look, but also the shapes of the stories they wrap.

I manually format my plays and I’m OK with that. Tabs,  spaces and attendant errors. I’ve been around long enough to write a couple of my earlier works on a typewriter. It’s not any more olden-days heroic an act than cleaning a bathroom by hand, but it certainly gives you a different understanding of the endeavour. The physical and mental act of handling everything offers a kind of intimacy. I would feel differently if I had to punch out a few episodes of TV a month, but I don’t.

The result of all this work, whether it’s a digital file, or a paper pile, is a big pattern. Some of this is conceptual, but some is easily perceivable on the page. I don’t read music, but I imagine there’s an instant ‘impression’ a musician must get when glancing at a score. They may perceive relative complexity or simplicity, but the experienced eye may also gather other aspects such as rhythms,  layers and relationship between instruments.

The visual rhythms implicit in the score of a script may be generated by the inscriptions on the page, but may manifest as broader patterns across the piece with structural implications. Two short scenes followed by a long one, then silence. Repeat. Build the comfort of expectation, then break it, then guide a return to a changed state, in which initial statements, so seemingly simple at the start, reveal themselves as carriers of much more. This is a very musical idea.

Robert Farris Thompson, a professor of art at Yale, pointed out that once you let yourself see things in this way, lots of things become “musical scores” – although they might never have been intended to be played. He argues that in a lot of African weaving, one can sense a rhythm. The repetition in these fabrics doesn’t consist of a simple looping of mirror images and patterns: rather, modular parts recombine, shift position, and interact over and over with one another, aligning in different ways over time, recombinant.  David Byrne, How Music Works (2012:188)

Musical Inclusions

Sometimes music is in the play. I’ve mentioned pre-curating soundtracks for non-verbal works. I’ve written a performance to the three movements of a violin concerto. I’ve experimented with applying sonata form to a performance structure. Because I believe musicians more than I believe in actors (or rather, performing musicians make a different kind of call on one’s capacity to suspend belief) I’ve written performances for musicians which are theatrical, but require no acting.

The idea of a setlist of songs generating the overall structure of a performance is something musicians do all the time, whether it’s premeditated or not. I’ve applied the same principle to playwriting, whether the music’s original or not. Here the music drives the work. It’s integral and has the power to change other elements, rather than being tacked on at the end. You could call this intermedial. It’s also modular, which means you can switch its components around fairly easily – handy for when you’re composing the structure of a play.

Sometimes there’ll be a broad principle applied to the usage of music in a script such as interstitial placement, underscore or even song picturisation which may develop as the play progresses. I will usually include ‘serving suggestions’ in the introductory notes for a script – songs that I have in mind – but I won’t prescribe the sole use of certain pieces of music, because A] tastes change B] those that interpret the work may have better ideas than me and C] they may not get the performance rights anyway.

If your playwriting has a musical disposition it will privilege the sonic landscape many of us live in, which is not objective, but rather perceptual. Sounds have a huge role to play in how we experience the world and there’s no reason why they can’t be written into a script. This can be direct or oblique, though as long as the writing is functionally useful to a prospective production, implication is better than instruction when it comes to stage directions, because it opens the work to interpretation.

Philip Auslander recalls two of Richard Schechner’s modes of performance: “doing and “showing doing.. pointing to, underlining, and displaying doing” He then draws on Victor Turner in making a crucial distinction between two kinds of musical performances. While some… carry their listeners into the subjunctive to explore the imaginative terrain of the “as if,” others remain in the indicative mood by reifying and celebrating “what is.” (2006, 22-150) [my emphasis]

‘as IF!’  – it’s a (probably out-dated) teenage colloquialism; an expression of disbelief, a more efficient way of saying ‘in your dreams’ or, ‘you wish’. I reckon that building music into performances, making it an integral element of process, from the script to the stage has a role in shifting the ‘as if’ of theatre towards the ‘what is’ of music.

Whether you’re working towards traditional, script-led theatre (where the text is allowed to think it rules) contemporary performance products (in which text is problematized or discarded entirely); hierarchical or collaborative processes (where the script may be caused by performance, rather than the other way around) ; whether you’re wearing a bum-shaped dent in your writer’s chair all on your earphoned lonesome or collaboratively bumping into the furniture up on stage; music can have a vitalising effect on the work of the playwright. It doesn’t just make the work easier to produce, perform and participate in, I believe it changes its essence.


Auslander, P., 1956 2006, Performing glam rock: gender and theatricality in popular music, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Buning, Marius, Matthijs Engelberts and Sjef Houppermans, eds. 1997. Samuel Beckett: Crossroads and borderlines. Amsterdam; Atlanta: Rodopi.

Byrne, David. 2012 How music works. Edinburgh: Canongate Books

Eno, Brian 2010 in

Eno, Brian 1993 from the liner notes to Neroli

Frith, Simon. 1996. Performing rites: Evaluating popular music. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Juslin, Patrick N. and John A. Sloboda. 2001. Music and emotion: Theory and research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lassere,  Maskull Notes for Lt Brown by Maskull [featured image]

Roesner, D. 2010, “Musicality as a paradigm for the theatre: a kind of manifesto”, Studies in Musical Theatre, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 293-306

Roesner, D. 2016, Musicality in theatre: music as model, method and metaphor in theatre-making, Routledge, London.

Zollo, Paul. 2003. Songwriters on songwriting. New York: Da Capo Press.

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