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Critical Thinking about Music

It’s important to make the point that it does not require advance degrees in
music to be able to think deeply about music and how it can help to tell the story.
In this introduction, talk to teachers and students about how many singers don’t
feel qualified to speak intelligently about music so they don’t try. I believe it’s much
simpler than they imagine and that you just need to know where to begin.
Actors are expected to understand the world of the play and the playwright,
to understand the history of the play, its historical context, and the style. They
might ask themselves, “How is this play different from other plays by the same
author?” or “What is the dramatic shape of the play and how does my character
help to tell that story?” This is true if the actor is doing the entire play or just a
monologue. For the Musical Theatre actor, she may do all of this work and not
look to a vital clue to their job, the music and the story it is telling. Why do they
stop short? Because often they don’t feel qualified to speak about it. In my
experience, speaking generally, singers are a little intimidated by the music they
are singing. But is this surprising? No, because music is a complex language and
so few have been given the tools to engage in the deciphering of its syntax and
tools. It is time for this to change.
Music is complex. When lyrics are added to the mix, it becomes even more
complicated. But we can break it down into its component parts and see what
looking at the score and, sometimes more importantly, listening to the score can
tell us about the song. It’s important for you to accept that you do not need
particularly strong theory or musicianship skills to be able to do this but they will,
of course, help. But let’s first assume that you do not know the difference between
a tonic chord and a dominant chord. The things that I will assume that you
understand are things like:
1. Melody and melodic contour. This melody goes up while that melody goes
down. This melody is high while this melody is lower. Sometimes, as in the
opening of “Will He Like Me?”, there is a purposeful lack of traditional melody.
2. Tempo. This tempo is fast, this tempo is slower.
3. Representation in music. Music can represent or suggest things is time and
space. For instance, music that sounds like a March can represent a parade while
a Waltz can represent a genteel social gathering. A clock ticking can be
represented in music because it is essentially a musical figure of pitch and
4. Rhythm can be predictable or smooth (“In My Own Little Corner” from
CINDERELLA) or it can be unpredictable or syncopated (“Something’s
Coming” from WEST SIDE STORY) The heartbeat rhythm is such a
fundamental life rhythm that when it is utilized can have powerful meanings in
songs like “Tonight” (West Side Story) or “The Story Goes On” (Baby). Rhythm
is an important component in understanding music that can be overlooked.
5. Orchestration can suggest moods and feelings. A flute can be sweet. A trumpet
can be strong and powerful. Timpani drums can be majestic. A saxophone often
is used to suggest the sexual. A lone, high violin can suggest a plaintive quality.
Listen to “Peter and the Wolf” for the ways that instruments can help to tell a
6. Form. Looking at the way a song unfolds in time with differing melodies and
harmonies can be a powerful tool for understanding a song. Before 1943, songs
were fairly simple in structure, usually in an AABA or ABAB form. After
OKLAHOMA!, theatre songs like “Lonely Room” and “Soliloquy” were often
more complex as the situations and story-telling grew in complexity.

Simple. Right? Well maybe not that simple but certainly too mysterious.

In my freshman Introduction to Musical Theatre, a class containing both

acting majors and musical theatre majors, we listen to music and discuss how the
music helps to tell the story. I am amazed at how astute these smart but relatively
untrained musicians can hear and respond critically to changes in the music. They
can draw conclusions about why the changes were there and the specific story that
the changes were telling. We start with very clearcut songs like “Rose’s
Turn” (Gypsy) and “Soliloquy” (Carousel). While both of them are rather long, the
ways that music is used in telling two very strong stories is very clear.
I invite you to try this. While listening to “Soliloquy,” take notes about the
music. I’ll assume you know Billy’s story and the place this song plays into that
story. Don’t try to be too technical. You might say things like, “The song starts
slow. Billy is asking questions. He is singing in the low part of his voice. It’s
almost like he is talking on pitch. He seems sad.” Then later you might say, “Man,
the music really changes into something different when he talks about what they’ll
do together. It becomes something of a March. It’s not sad anymore. Billy likes the
idea of becoming a father.”
The song goes through many transitions that culminate in a big decision.
How did he get there and how did the music help him get there?