The impact of music is undeniable… It has been found in every known culture since the dawn of time, it is abundantly present in the time we live in and nothing indicates that it will ever stop to move, inspire and motivate us. Music has evolved to become a fundamental part of human life and the human mind has evolved to perceive music as the universal language we all speak. It is without doubts nor reservations when I say that music is one of the most powerful tools we, as showmakers, possess.
I suspect many of you, if not all of you, have experienced the impact of music first-hand. However, the ability to use music as a tool is a different story altogether and an incredible talent to possess. Especially for (but not limited to) those who work in the entertainment industry. In this article I would like to share my personal opinions, experiences and tips as to how you can use music to move, inspire or motivate your live show audience…
Using the perfect fit
First and foremost, the music you use must evidently be a perfect fit. Whether it is a symphony that supports a beautiful theatrical show, a catchy melody for a corporate event or even the background music during a speech, it must be an extension of the story you want to tell. A good example of this was the backdrop for Obama’s election night victory speech back in 2008. He, or rather his election team, chose the theme of the movie ‘Remember the Titans’ to accompany his speech. The song transported the millions of people who were listening back to that euphoric feeling they got when they watched the underdog Afro-American team win their game and with it, their fight against racism. A perfect emotional fit and excellent use of permanent linkage.
Customization is key
Finding the perfect fit can be a quite difficult quest. In fact, choosing one song out of the infinite realm of options is nearly impossible. That is why I think that in the overwhelming majority of cases you need custom-made music. A unique tune for a unique show. Here’s why…
Firstly, it provides a clean slate effect. Since your audience has never heard it before, they will have no prior opinions, memories or experiences linked to the specific music. Which is evidently a huge benefit when trying to induce a collective mood or feeling using audio. Secondly, when using existing music, you are bound to limitations. You will be forced to adapt your story to the music, which is fine if you want to translate music into a performance but fairly inconvenient if you want to tell your own story.
Therefore, I think that the development of the music should be an integrated part of the creation process. In this way you will be able to simultaneously create every component, including the music, of your show and ensure its coherence. So, in my humble opinion… Having a composer or musician in your creative team is not just an advantage, it is an absolute necessity.
Set the ambiance
Obviously, you want to start off from the right point. Music can change the atmosphere within seconds. To do this properly there are a few components that need to be addressed. First, you need your main theme to be on point. The main theme should be the musical version of your live show. It needs to both carry the message you want to convey as well as the feeling you want to induce within your audience. It is the translation of your story into our universal language.
When you have your main theme, and the countless adaptations, variants and elaborations that come with it, you are ready to create the motives. Motives are pieces of music that work well with the main theme and are used in similar settings. For example, if your show contains multiple parts in which you want your audience to be in a state of joy, create a motive for that. The brain will instantly recognize the music and automatically adapt to it.
Storytelling with music
This is an incredibly difficult aspect in making shows. It requires expertise, experience and intuition in abundance. The way you tell the story with music can make or break the show. Apart from the obvious differences between for instance corporate events, dinner shows or theatrical performances the following aspects are what I think the most important.
As with every story, in written, spoken or any other form the story arc is sacred. Never give away too much too soon. This is where your motives and variations on your main theme come into play. To keep the audience captivated you make sure that the music is ever increasing the suspense. Use the variations of your main theme and your motives to support the story but save the most epic version of your theme for the grand finale.
Music causes the brain to produce endorphins and dopamine (among a variety of other chemicals). Use this to play with your audience. Make them feel joy, sadness, or even anger. Surprise them and make them wonder. Take them along on a rollercoaster ride of emotions before ending your show with an unimaginable climax. In many ways it is like cooking a perfect meal. Use the right amount of certain ingredients at the right moment to create perfection.
Some useful mind tricks
Given the fact that the human mind has evolved to be ridiculously perceptive to music or any audio for that matter, there are many ways to trick the mind of your audience. Here are a few of my favourites.
To get the attention of your audience for a show moment without having to announce anything you can use audio cues. For a corporate event, you can turn down the music and start a drone, which is a deep sound, just before the show starts. People will automatically assume that something is about to happen and will turn their attention towards the stage. For theatrical shows the suspense is a more continuous aspect, as the attention of your audience is already focussed on the stage.
The human brain links music to experiences, creating powerful and lasting memories. Use this to your advantage… Make sure to use the music of your show in the aftermath. For example, you could play it in the bar or use it as the soundtrack of the aftermovie. This will blast your audience right back to the initial experience as their brains start producing whatever endorphins, dopamine or oxytocin you induced in the first place.
The effect of music on the brain visualized by a MRI scan
Part of what makes us human is the capability of abstract thinking. We can imagine flying to the stars with wings that do not exist, and by doing so we bring it into being. The power of imagination in relation to music is perhaps the most powerful way in which music can be used. Because music is fundamentally abstract it has a great influence on our emotions, expectations and immersion. For example, the throb of low drums can be interpreted as the rumble of thunder or an overall menacing abstract yet to come.
Music can be a mean of transportation. A portal to our subconscious mind. I understand that this might sound rather abstract, however, I don’t think there is anything more capable of getting us out of the ‘here and now’ then music. And it works on any level as well…
Do you want to accentuate the fact that the show is multicultural or even takes place in a different part of the world? Use the instruments and sounds common to the specific area. for instance, for a board of directors dinner we created to celebrate a multicultural collaboration we composed a main theme in which two traditional instruments, one of each culture, were harmonized into a beautiful and uplifting sound, merging two different worlds seamlessly.
On a more abstract level, music does not only transports us to certain places but to feelings and memories as well. People can be fully immersed by music as it transports them from sadness to joy and from the here and now to anywhere and anytime you want them to be. Take them along for the journey.
Note to reader
I would like to emphasize that I realize this subject is way too intricate to be downsized to just a small article. I hope, however, I provided you with some valuable insights that might prove to be helpful. If you have anything to add or just want to talk about it, feel free to contact me!