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What is the role of music in theater?

By Jarret Allen


When we consider the relationship between music and theater, we naturally think about Broadway musicals, from West Side Story to Les Misérables to Hamilton. We often forget about the music during a staged play, also known as “incidental music.” The script might say that a scene includes a phonograph playing a record, a character playing the piano, or a band in the background of a club. Incidental music like this appears in plays from all eras, from Shakespeare to Chekhov. Playwright August Wilson, known as Pittsburgh’s "Bard of the Hill," calls for music throughout his Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of ten plays that depict city life in each decade of the 20th century. What should the performers do when the author does not say what kind of music should be played? Could their musical choices even affect the storyline?

August Wilson's play Seven Guitars has multiple scenes in which a recording of a blues song is supposed to be played. The song "That's Alright" doesn't exist in the real world — it is supposedly written by the main character, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, an intensely charismatic and talented man who cares for his friends and family. However, Floyd is also impulsive and tends to act selfishly. Floyd’s “hit” song has a couple of functions in the play. On one hand, it sets the scene in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the 1940s, when blues music was pervasive and popular. On the other hand, the song gives the audience insight into Floyd’s character and personality. Depending on what kind of music the performers choose, Floyd might seem accomplished and admirable or seem like a run-around man who would abandon his girlfriend for a woman he just met.

Here are two blues songs from the 1940s that are quite different in style and character: Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied" and Ray Charles' "Confession.” A production of Seven Guitars might try to make Floyd’s “hit” sound like either of these artists. In the sound clips, I have audio-engineered the recordings the way I would for a stage production — the music sounds like it is being played outdoors on an old-fashioned radio.

ConfessionRay Charles
00:00 / 00:28
I can't be SatisfiedMuddy Waters
00:00 / 00:28

Sound clips edited by Jarret Allen

Notice how Charles’ "Confession" is brooding and melancholic. The plodding and repetitious chords on guitar and piano sound apathetic and faltering. Even Charles' voice is breathy with each phrase rising and falling like a sigh. If Floyd’s “hit” song sounded similar, the audience might view him as an introspective and serious character.

By comparison, "I Can't Be Satisfied" is upbeat and cheery with its brisk tempo. At the beginning of the clip, listen for the high and chirpy twangs of a harmonica that double Waters’ voice. You’ll hear scoops in the melody, as Waters and the guitar slide up to pitches. This makes the song feel springy and buoyant. If Floyd’s “hit” sounded like this, the audience might see him as a confident and fun-loving character.

Which of the two song styles do you think would best characterize Floyd as caring and charismatic, as well as impulsive and selfish?
Select an option

Thanks for your feedback!


Broad, Leah. “Approaching Incidental Music: ‘Reflexive Performance’ and Meaning in Till Damaskus (III).” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 147 (2022): 495 - 532.

Lubbock, Mark. "Music Incidental to a Play." The Musical Times 98, No. 1369 (March 1957): 128-131.

Minors, Helen Julia. “How can music deliver the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Kingston Connections Conference Proceedings, 21 - 29 Jun 2014, Kingston upon Thames, U.K.. (2014).

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