Some years ago I was asked to play the guitar and bass for an original play being created where I lived. They already had a composer and needed musicians.
I thought that it would be a good thing to add to my portfolio and went along to a practice. They had 3 weeks to the performance and as I walked in the door there was panic. The director was angry on the phone and everyone else was upset. The composer had decided he wasn’t interested anymore and hadn’t written any music for the play at all.
My friend, who had asked me to play, said, in front of everyone, “Steve writes music, he could do it.” The director begged me to try. 3 weeks to write all the original music for a 90 minute play, teach and rehearse the musicians, rehearse with the actors to work out cues and even add 3 songs that the director wanted members of the cast to sing.
The director told me that the play was destined for radio and there would be payments for me then. This turned out to be either a lie or an unrealistic hope.
So there I was, working full time and writing original music for a play that I knew nothing about. The overview of the play was about a family break up around the realisation that the father was a murderer and the family trying to escape him.
So I quickly realised that the best way to do this was to build themes for the leading characters and then add various moods underneath depending on the requirements of the scene.
There was no way that I could write music for the whole 90 minutes so I assessed the main scenes of the play and the moods required and set to work on them.
The 3 singers I had to work with were at least experienced if not the most talented. The least talented had to sing a haunting song about the death of a loved one. So I created a melody of just 4 notes and used the music underneath to create the mood. The repeating notes worked really well and the singer quickly gained confidence in what they had to do.
The second was performing a piece of poetry that was meant to be menacing. I decided that the best way to achieve this was to get them to speak slowly with as deep a voice as possible with whispered bits. Adding a low whirring synth sound and a bass arpeggio of a minor b5 created a tension that was perfect.
The third was the innocent nursery rhyme like song, meant to give the impression of a child trying to calm itself. Creating a bouncy 6/8 time with a simple 4 bar melody and major chords gave the nursey rhyme but adding the same bass arpeggio underneath reminded the listener that not everything was well.
The time limit meant that I had to use a minimalist approach to everything and this added to the nervousness that the play needed to be effective. I had 3 musicians, including myself, but between us we could play synth and piano, guitar and bass and lastly trumpet and a range of 3 saxophones.
I was able to give the important themes to each of the 4 lead instruments (trumpet and 3 saxophones) and so even playing the instrument made the themes immediately recognisable.
The play went ahead, sold out 3 nights running and got excellent reviews. The director even made a profit. It didn’t make it to radio but I had a very good addition to my portfolio.
Creating moods is about a number of things – pitch (low pitch sounds sad or menacing, middle pitches can be calming and happy and high pitches can create nervousness and tension), tempo (speed or changing speeds can create a range of emotions), sound (the instruments you use and how they sound can create their own emotions) and harmony (certain chords will create certain emotions – Major chords are happy, Minor chords are sad, Diminished chords create tension and awkwardness).
Using some or all of these can create degrees of a mood. Listen to TV shows and movies. Close your eyes and listen to the music. Try and work out the mood of the scene then go back and watch it again. Did you get it right?