Composing for theatre is the same as composing for games (mostly)

There’s a great deal of overlap between the techniques of scoring theatre and games (I’d argue that there’s a blurring of boundaries between the two media that happens when you get into immersive and interactive theatre, but that discussion is for another day).

The fluidity of durations in both theatre and games creates the same challenges of synchronising music with specific events. These challenges have evolved very similar composition and structural techniques as solutions – arguably the same in many cases, if only implemented on different software.

In games the way the music synchronises to any in-game action is called ‘adaptive’. In theatre… I think the term is just music. But it’s the same thing.

I don’t understand why there isn’t more crossover between games and theatre in the audio department. Technology aside, it’s basically the same job.

Loops, stings (or stingers), layering, cues – all these techniques are used both in games and theatre in order to get the music to sound like it’s from a film – ie. linear. By linear, I mean composed from one point to another in time for a fixed duration.

That’s the illusion we’re going for in theatre and games music, and if we composers do our jobs right the audience or player is none the wiser.

This works for sound design too but it tends to be more noticeable in music when the techniques haven’t quite worked. Whilst I’m generalising somewhat (and as much as I dislike a sweeping statement, here goes nothing), music often has more reliance on a sense of the beat. Where a sound (eg a chiming clock) has a clear rhythm, the same applies.

The Challenge – certain events rarely happen at the same time

The challenge comes in theatre when the dialogue or action rarely has the same duration performance-to-performance. This challenge is the same as when gameplay is different every single time a game is played.

I’ve worked with actors in the past who can time their dialogue to the music (an absolute delight!), and though it does make certain aspects of the job easier it’s not realistic to always expect that. If rehearsal time can be factored in for this specific purpose, and the music really is key to the scene, it can be worth planning for that.

But the challenge – that temporal fluidity – is deliberate – it’s the point of theatre and games

The point of theatre (I would argue, though some theatre practitioners in the past pandemic-ridden year might disagree as to this definition… but I digress) is that it’s live, and that there can be a freedom in not tying the action and dialogue down to a very specific duration.

This is the same challenge that is deliberately courted in games music for a different reason – the action is specific to the player, and the player will feel more engagement and enjoyment if the sound and music is more reactive and synchronised to their gameplay. 

This is the first part in a 5 part series on how theatre and games music composition techniques are so very similar – having evolved out of the same challenges. In Part 2 I’ll talk about using loops and stings, the building blocks of creating adaptive scores for both theatre and games.

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