Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Learning to Underscore, Part 4: Reading a scene

During a story-based scene, the mood is going to evolve and change as the scene goes on. (Why do I say "story-based"? Some short-form scenes can have a non-story handle. It's hard to provide mood music for those, so don't; segues or maybe punctuation are often enough.)

Your job is to read the emotion in the scene, react to it, blend with the scene, multiply that feeling. The Zenprov guys said it well in their music podcast - music is concentrated emotion. With words your brain spends a little time interpreting them and figuring out the context... Music is more direct, reaching in to your heart right away. A good musical bed prepares the listener for the emotion.

That means as a musician you have to pay really close attention to the scene - the words, the facial expressions, the movements. Read them, amplify them, turn them around as music.

All of the stuff we've talked about before comes in to play here. If you've figured out the skills to restyle a song you know, you are in a better position to react to what's on stage to change what you're playing right now. Using major or minor or discordant keys to match positive/negative/unbalanced scenes... Using tempo and rhythm to give that extra dimension...

There are times to be passive, and times to be dramatic. If a scene is tender, or lightly sad, or is just moving from intense-to-light, you'll want to be playing lighter sparser music. I hang around in upper registers, and get a little more melodic. On the other hand, if a scene is angry, or passionate, or dangerous, thundering piano in the mid and lower registers fits well.

Here's an example. You'll forgive my script; my strengths are more in music than scriptwriting. The descriptions below aren't the only way to play these, of course, just one way.
  • An old couple relaxing on the porch, talking about their past: Contented; major key, medium and high registers, relaxed pace
  • Woman thinks back to before they met, at a hard time in her life: Melancholy; minor key, mid register, relaxed
  • Landlord evicts her: Pleading, sad; minor key, more sweeping changes, mid register, medium tempo
  • Bag-snatcher wrestles her bag away: Dramatic; thundering minor key, low and mid registers, faster tempo
  • Good-Samaritan man chases bag snatcher through the crowd: Dramatic and frenetic; minor key tending to discordant, fast pace, mid to high register
  • Man catches bag-snatcher, rescues bag: Triumph; major key, low to mid register, uplifting chord progression, medium tempo
  • Bag-snatcher's grandmother happens along and drags him away by his ears: Comical; major key tending to discordant, mid to high registers, medium tempo
  • Meanwhile woman is sitting, mulling over recent events: Sad; minor key, mid register, relaxed tempo
  • Man arrives with bag: Hopeful; major key, higher register, almost discordant, rising progression
  • Woman and man lock eyes, and the bag is forgotten: New love, major key, mid register, medium tempo, arpeggios

I have other odd devices I tend to use for particular emotions. Hopeful and triumphant music are quite similar to me; both are major key rising chord progressions; hopeful is higher and a little slower. But for both I tend to suspend the bass note as I work through a chord progression, for example, C Dmaj/C, Ebmaj/C, F/C for triumphant, C, Dmaj/C, F/C, Fmin/F for hope.


I tend to match the intensity of the speaking on stage, if for no other reason than to sit just under it, and not block the actors' voices.

This sort of underscoring is the easiest to practice with an actual scene, so get together with your improvisers and make time to try this out. And listen to their feedback! They may not be able to give you music-theory feedback, but they'll be able to tell you about how the intensity or emotion in what you played fed in to their scene. I think the key thing to look for is - did they tell you that your music amplified the scene, and helped to take them somewhere emotionally? If so, good for you, you've got it. :)

If you don't have improvisers handy, you can use a trick I've started to use in my freestyle piano improv. Imagine the narrative of a story; maybe a story from your life, maybe a story from TV or a movie or a book. Break it up in to beats in your head. (I'm not talking about musical beats here, but storytelling beats, a plot point within the overall story structure.) Beat by beat, imagine the overriding emotion (or emotional journey) of that section, and play it. Each beat/piece can be as short or as long as you want. No one's listening, so you can tune it to be how you like it.


That's it for this series, from me anyway. I know this blog is frequented by experienced musicians - are there things you'd like to add? What devices did you use to help you learn to underscore?

This is part four in a series on learning to underscore improvised scenes.

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