Actors and Performers

Music Fundamentals for Musical Theatre

Earlier this year Methuen Drama published Music Fundamentals for Musical Theatre by Christine Riley, a Music Director, Vocal Coach and Arranger currently residing in NYC.

A unique and accessible book, it allows aspirational performers – and even those who aren’t enrolled on a course – to access the key components of music training that will be essential to their careers.

Read two extracts from the book below: 

Song Form

Most songs are divided into sections musically and lyrically. Usually you will find a verse and a chorus. In general, the lyrics for the verse change each time the verse appears while the lyrics for the chorus tend to stay the same or similar. Some songs may also have a bridge and/or a coda section. A verse or chorus is usually eight to sixteen bars long.

Take a listen/look at “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from the original Guys and Dolls. It starts with an eight-bar verse (“I dreamed last night . . .”) and then goes into the chorus at “For the people all said . . .” This is a nineteen-bar chorus (sixteen bars of vocals and three bars of transition). After the transition, we are back to another verse with new lyrics and then a second chorus. The second chorus is sixteen bars long (no transition) and has slightly modified lyrics (“people all said beware . . .”). Next, you hear a third verse with new lyrics and then a final chorus where the lyrics are in the first person (“I said to myself . . .”). At the end of the third chorus, we go into a six-bar bridge section. This section has repetitive lyrics and a slightly different feel than anything we have heard so far, with syncopation in the vocals and a pedal tone (held note) in the orchestra. After the bridge, we end with an eight-bar coda. The coda is an extension of the lyrics and musical ideas of the chorus but it builds to a climactic ending.

Notice that each verse is in 4/4 time. The chorus, bridge, and coda are in cut-time.

Overall song form: Verse 1, Chorus, Verse 2, Chorus, Verse 3, Chorus, Bridge, Coda

Now take a look and listen to “Home” from Beauty and The Beast. Here we start with a sixteen-bar verse which feels like an introduction to the song. The chorus begins with “It this home?” and lasts for twenty bars. Next we move into a bridge beginning at “What I’d give” (notice we begin this section on an a minor chord, the vi chord in C, and it briefly feels like we have moved into the relative minor). At the end of the nine-bar bridge we modulate to D major for the second chorus. At the end of the twenty-bar chorus we have a short six-bar coda starting with “My heart’s far . . .”

Overall song form: Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Coda

Look at songs that you are working on. What is the song form? Is there more than one verse? How are they different? Does the chorus change each time or stay the same? Is there a bridge or coda? Why have the writers broken up the song in this way? How can this help you understand your character’s journey? Does your song have a key change? How does it affect the mood of your song?

Analyzing a Song

We have discussed melody, rhythm, and harmonic structure. We have analyzed songs based on these elements. But what else can the music tell us? What about the accompaniment? What about the orchestra?

When you are working on a song from the musical theatre repertoire, you are often accompanied by a pianist (accompanist). The accompanist is typically playing a piano reduction of the orchestral score. What can you learn from the piano accompaniment? If you are working on a show, you eventually get to the exciting point when the orchestra joins the rehearsal process. Usually that is at the sitzprobe, a music rehearsal specifically focused on bringing the actors and orchestra together for the first time. How does that enhance the show or your performance? All of these elements should be taken into consideration when you are working on music.

It is important to listen closely to your musical accompaniment. When listening to the piano alone, listen for things like heavy or driving chords, slow arpeggios, low bass notes and/or high and fast sixteenth notes. What do each of these elements contribute to the musical feel of the piece? When listening to the orchestra, you have the added elements of the different instruments. What instruments are playing? What mood are they setting? Is it romantic or goofy; triumphant or troubled? Does the orchestra give you any clues as to where you are (i.e. Cuba or Texas)?

A Quick Look at the Orchestra

In musical theatre, the size of the orchestra and the choice of instruments can vary drastically from show to show. For the most part, modern pit orchestras are smaller than the traditional pit orchestras of the 1930s–1950s. When traditional shows have a Broadway revival, they are often reorchestrated with a smaller orchestra. This is partially for budgetary purposes but it is largely due to technology. You will find that modern pit orchestras tend to have two or three keyboard synthesizers. The keyboards can be programed to play hundreds of sounds, therefore replacing some “live” instruments. The technology has advanced to a point that some keyboard sounds are sampled from live instruments, creating an authentic sound to most audience members. However, not all shows follow this trend. Currently, The Phantom of The Opera is the largest Broadway orchestra, with twenty-seven musicians. Wicked and The Lion King currently have twenty-three and the revival of Hello, Dolly! has twenty-two. All of these shows also have a conductor that doesn’t have to play a keyboard part. The rest of the current Broadway orchestras range from six to eighteen musicians (many with a conductor also playing one of the keyboard parts). Waitress has the smallest orchestra with six musicians including the pianist /conductor. In no way does the size of an orchestra make a show better or worse. Each show is orchestrated to best serve the music and the storytelling.

Buy Music Fundamentals for Musical Theatre by Christine Riley at