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Last updated: October 30, 2018

Music Scoring for Radio Plays - Part 1

An essay on using music effectively in radio drama or any drama.  For a musician's perspective on scoring see Scoring for Audio Theatre - Part 2

Dramatic Underscoring

    Radio drama consists of a well blended mix of dialogue, sound effects and music. Dialogue, of course,  is the most important aspect, but you would be mistaken to rank sound effects second.  Music is often more important to radio drama than sound effects. The short bits of music in radio shows, called “music cues,” can be used to play your audience “like an organ.” During a performance, if a sound effect cue is missed, the audience usually won't notice, but a missing music cue can rob your story of dramatic power. Effective use of dramatic music can put the “opera” into Soap Opera. Here are some ideas writers/directors should consider when fitting music to radio drama or even stage and film dramas.

    Music cues can sketch the setting, punctuate a dialogue line, even shift a scene's tone from tragedy to comedy. Music can instantly transport the listener from an Alaskan cabin to a tropical paradise. In your dramatic arsenal, music can be an atom bomb of irony or merely a squirt gun used to fill space between strings of dialogue.

    In radio, sound effects are action and music is reaction--a tool to comment on the meaning of dialogue or action. A radio audience instinctively perceives this as the difference between motion and emotion. Dramatic music can push the audience's emotional buttons like no other effect. As a radio dramatist, you need to make the most of this powerful tool--even if you are “only” the writer.

    In the golden age of network radio of the 1940s and 1950s, radio writers had little responsibility for the directing or musical scoring of their programs, but in the much smaller world of radio/audio drama today, and particularly for educational productions, writers often direct their own works. So, learn how to use music and then write your dramas with music in mind. You may not be actually composing the music, but you should know what to look for and how to employ it.

Musical Vocabulary

    Most listeners hear certain combinations of tones as “happy” or “sad” music, but there are many more feelings that can be suggested by music; melancholy, tension, confusion, exhilaration, irony, ecstasy, etc.  A skilled composer of what is called dramatic underscoring has a vocabulary of chords and motifs that evoke certain feelings--a diminished 7th chord screams “shock,” a 7-flat-9 chord croaks “sinister”, a 6th chord chirps “everything is all tied up nicely”, a major 7th chord soothes “serenity,” whereas a 9th chord leaves you hanging with doubt, etc. Unfortunately, unless you are a musician, these chord names offer little help in scoring your drama. However, as a media-educated listener, you easily “read” the moods when you hear these chords and motifs. When looking for suitable music to score your drama, keep these “feelings” in mind. You will know them when you hear them.

Name That Tune

    The music you use to score your radio drama can be of any genre, but instrumental music is the most useful--it doesn't distract the listener with words and their mental images. Classical music and film scores are the best sources for dramatic music because of their wide emotional range and many moods. Additionally, audiences are conditioned to respond to movie and TV music. The services of a dramatic composer can greatly contribute to your drama, however underscoring is a unique genre of music and may be beyond the skills of the pop musicians you happen to know. Typical melodies can actually work against you because they could distract the listener from the dialogue--a big no-no. This is why film scores may be better than using standard classical music. Underscoring is about setting a mood and staying there, especially for live productions where the pace of the drama is variable. Still, it doesn't matter what music you use as long as you know how to employ it for effect.

Curtain Music

    At its most basic, music cues in radio drama serve the same purpose that the curtain does in a theatrical presentation. This “curtain music” is used to introduce the program, divide the various scenes, and conclude the story.  Called “Act-in” (beginning) and “Act-out” (ending) music, it can be used to simply “cleanse the palate” between scenes and allow the audience to rest their minds or put some distance between scenes. Almost any “neutral” themes can be employed for this purpose, but you may want to enlist your dramatic sense in selecting music to reinforce or contrast a scene's emotional content.

    Typical uses of curtain music are easy to imagine. Exciting music will kick off a daredevil scene at a high pitch, while spooky music will conjure up a haunted house tinged in dread. Similarly, somber music elicits audience tears as the heroine gasps her last breath, while a music box theme can deliver a sardonic punch line as the baby monster naps after devouring Captain Radio. This idea of mating music to scene appears to be straightforward, but only for the opening or final curtain of your drama. What about between scenes, where the obvious choices might clash?

Scenic Bridges

    If you opt to use curtain music as a dramatic device and not merely to mark scene changes, you enter into the tricky area of bridge cues. This is not using music underneath dialogue, but to "bridge" between the end of one scene and the beginning of another. You seek to select music that imparts the desired mood to the scene just concluded or just beginning, but what if the two scenes differ in their emotional settings?

    One method is to choose to score only one of the two scenes. If the hero is tied to a railroad track at the end of a scene, use dangerous music, then fade to silence for a moment, then begin the dialogue or sound effects of the next scene where somebody calls the Mounted Police. Another method would be to end a scene with dialogue, have a moment of silence, then use music to introduce the next scene. This is the most common way to handle scene transitions. However there are times when you may want to get fancy. How do you bridge two totally disparate scenes? It can be a difficult task, depending upon the emotional distance to be traveled.

    A 1953-style soap opera I was scoring (for soap opera organ) had one scene end with a woman sobbing over the tragic loss of her husband. The next scene started with two housewives chatting while baking cookies. Emotionally, these scenes were at opposite poles. I couldn't just use tragic music alone without casting a gloom over the cookie baking scene and I couldn't use happy domestic sounding music without mocking the sob scene.  This was a challenge.

    One option was to have tragic music at the end of the sob scene, then fade to silence for a moment, then begin a homey theme for the cookie baking. A narrator was explaining the scene shift, so this wouldn't be too jarring to the audience. They would be distracted by the narration and wouldn't notice the pause and change of music.

    Instead, I opted to compose one continuous music cue that started tragic and ended homey. That's pretty weird. It took 16 seconds, but the cue gave the audience plenty of time to empathize with the sobbing woman--who happens to be the villain on this show, lending her some dignity and deepening her character. I also intended the “tragic-to-homey” cue serve as a metaphor for the emotional roller coaster of soap operas themselves, where happiness and tragedy follow one another in an endless cycle. So, in one cue I covered a lot of emotional and metaphorical territory, but that is the luxury of having something composed specifically for your script.

    The transitional curtain music of the old time radio mystery shows often started out forcefully and then slowed and changed direction, culminating in a troubling uncertainty. This change tipped the listener off to "be careful!" because there's danger ahead.  It was a very useful dramatic device, imparting much to the flavor of classic radio drama.

    However, the kind of bridge cue where the music changes from one mood to another will be difficult to get unless you have a composer available. This mood swinging style was used extensively in old radio dramas, but is rare in film soundtracks or classical music--the likely sources for your musical scores. Still you may find some cues like this, now that you know what to look for.


    In radio soap operas, a character would often be speaking, then mid-sentence, the studio organist would play a single long note that served to underline the dialogue at that point. This was called a “sting” or “stinger” and greatly shaded the drama.

    PAMELA:    Oh, Bob would never leave me... Unless...


    PAMELA:    (CONT.) Unless he really meant  what he was saying

               about Kate...

    Upping the dread were stings played with two notes, a half-step apart, which conveyed a  more “sour” feeling. Stings were a pretty crude effect, but became a staple of radio scoring. Throw one into your drama today and it's instant "old-time radio.” Many radio genres used stings besides soap operas and today, film and television still use the same technique to heighten the delivery of a line reading, although they are more subtle, having the sting arise out of a continuous cue instead of appearing from silence. Please note: It may be difficult to find an old fashioned sting in a film soundtrack recording and there are no radio soundtrack recordings that I know of.

Underscoring - Music Beds

    Another form of radio underscoring is the music “bed”, where a music cue is playing while a character speaks over it. This is an extremely powerful dramatic device, often used to ridiculously manipulative effect in contemporary political attack commercials. Just imagine the music that would go under "Cuthbert T. Frothingham says he's for family values, but he fathered thousands of out-of-wedlock children..." A good use of this style of radio underscoring would be heroic music as a bed under a victory speech by a conquering hero or ominous music under a villain describing his fiendish plan. Effective use of this technique can push dialogue to great dramatic heights. Listen to various musical pieces while you read dialogue over it and you'll find that some music fits much better than others. This is a great exercise in learning to score your drama. You'll see just how many shades of emotion different music can wring from your dialogue. A great test of this would be to score a sincere love scene with "love music" then use the exact same dialogue with slightly "sour" music that would undermine the dialogue by adding doubt. Such is the power of music to re-shape a scene.

    However, for all their power, music beds can be difficult to use in low-budget radio drama productions. If not properly mixed, the music bed may too loud and drown out the dialogue.  Additionally, the dialogue may not match the twists and turns of the music you have chosen, resulting in a comic portion of music underneath a heartfelt line of dialogue. What's worse, in live performance, some actors may not deliver their lines in sync to the music (or, because of monitoring problems, may not even be able to hear the music while they speak). Take special care in selecting the cues and rehearsing with music beds. If you need dread under a speech, find something that starts with dread and stays there, then fade it out as needed.

Theme Music

    One method of underscoring is to assign a certain piece of music to a particular character or situation; the Hero's theme, the Bad Guy's theme, the Panic theme, the Love theme. This leitmotif approach allows the audience to instantly identify where they are in the show--especially if it's repeated later. You can re-use these themes as the need arises. The repetition conditions the audience's response sub-consciously, allowing you to “borrow” the emotions you stirred in an earlier scene. In scoring my radio adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I used a brass choir playing a particular melody under Scrooge's beloved sister's appearance, then, twenty minutes later, used a  harp playing the same theme when Scrooge meets his nephew's wife. This theme linked the two characters together emotionally and structurally. When using the theme approach, bear in mind that some theme music can be so extreme (devilish or angelic) as to appear corny, so you may want to reserve it for parody or comedy uses.

A Cliché is a Cliché is a Cliché

    Avoid over-used famous themes like Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain,  Bernard Herrmann’s shower cue from Psycho, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet, etc. Through endless repetition, these pieces have lost much of their emotive power. Audiences see them as a tired dramatic shorthand and may pre-judge your drama as clichéd also. You wouldn't want a listener to be rolling his eyes when you were seeking empathy or horror, would you? And be careful when using cliché themes for parody, as some listeners may read the music as "straight" and miss your joke.

Instrumental Actors

    Another scoring technique is to reserve some instruments for special dramatic uses. I was scoring a private-eye radio drama set in 1942. I avoided using late 1940s Bebop or 1950s Cool jazz styles--both now a cliché in scoring this type of show. Since it was set in Hollywood, I used 1942-style movie music instrumentation, designating certain instrument groups for certain “roles.” I used  a small string section for tension and sadness, brass and timpani for power (usually under the bad guys), muted trumpets for a sardonic comment, a mocking clarinet for a humorous tag, a bass clarinet for dark dread,  an organ for creepiness and vibes to add a jazzy nightclub touch.  With this selection to choose from, I could serve up several different flavors of paranoia or melancholy as the script required. The orchestration allowed the same melody to take on different feels as needed. This might appear to apply solely to composing a score from scratch, but you might use a CD of a classical violin piece to play under your heroine and a bass viol piece under the evil bus driver. Think of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, but don't use it, since it is a cliché.

Quality over Quantity

    Sometimes the most appropriate music is none at all--silence. You don't always have to tell your audience how to feel. Lead them on, but not by the nose! A typical over-use of music is ominous scoring as the girl goes through the werewolf's cave. Here you're telegraphing "Beware!" to the audience, setting them up for a scare. When the werewolf actually attacks, it's just what the audience expected--the opposite of surprise. Another way to do it would be to hold off the music until the werewolf roars, then wham, lay on the score! You use the silence to create tension then you use the score to punctuate the surprise and lengthen the reaction, letting the audience experience the girl's fright themselves.

    Go through the script and “spot” where music belongs--as a curtain, a bridge, a sting, a bed. Also, see where silence belongs--it can be used as a powerful contrast. Sometimes a lone sound effect can outdo a symphony orchestra. Also, don't over-rely on music or you could actually detract from the drama. In mid-1940s Hollywood, a wall-to-wall style of film scoring was in vogue. However, it added such an unreal “layer” to the drama, it actually made you care less about the characters. Since this was just some syrupy movie, the characters obviously weren't real people, so who cares about them? Be careful. An audience knows when they are being manipulated--the trick is to manipulate with subtlety.

Know the Music Score

    Whether you compose your own cues or use music by other composers, inspect what you plan to use. Depending on the scene, avoid music cues that are too long, as you may lose dramatic momentum. Cues that are too short may slip by unnoticed. Group your selected cues together by the type of feeling they are to evoke and listen to them closely to make sure they don't sound too similar in key or melody. Then group them in the order they will play in your show and listen again for how well they fit together. I take special care that two pieces that will be played back to back are not in the same key--it's jarring when they overlap and I don't want to call attention to the score except as I intend to.

    Here's a real inside tip; Audition your music cues at very low volumes. Most music cues will be played under dialogue--much lower than if you were listening to them as music. When you play music at low volumes, the human ear rolls off the lower frequencies to a great degree--you don't perceive them as well as higher frequencies. This will make your cues sound "thin" when used under dialogue, which may greatly harm their effectiveness--that bass clarinet won't be half as ominous sounding if it's not loud enough. The "Loudness" switch on many stereos is used to compensate for this effect when listening at low volumes. So, when transferring your cues to tape or playing them through your mixer during production, try to add extra bass to make up for the human ear's low volume bass roll off.

Somewhere, There's Music

    Aside from having music expressly composed for your drama,  Classical music  (especially ballet) and film scores are rich with possibilities. Please note that I say film “scores” and not necessarily film soundtrack recordings. Often a contemporary film may employ a dramatic score, but have pop songs on the soundtrack CD and exclude the actual score--so be careful when buying film soundtrack CDs. One way to locate appropriate music is to rent videos of movies with scenes similar to your drama and then buy the film score recording.

Compilation albums:

    Record companies offer collections of excerpts from dozens of classical pieces which are fine for music cues. The Deutsche Grammophon label has a series of $7 CDs called "Mad About..."  (Classical, Opera, Tchaikovsky, Movies, Romance, etc.) with 20 tracks per disc. Other record labels offer collections grouped by horror, romance, new age, nautical and other themes. Madacy records’ 10-CD collection for $30 called “Best Of The Classics” may be very useful although I haven't inspected it closely. I find film scores are much better suited than standard classical pieces; they evoke moods and sustain them--just what you need for drama. There are collections of film scores by composers or genres. Record companies such as Varese Sarabande have re-recorded film scores, with all the cues, by famous film composers such as Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, and Miklos Rozsa. You can also find complete scores by Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams and others contemporary film composers. Try the web record stores at or

OK, But Is Any of This Legal?

    Royalties are owed for the use of a composer's work or an orchestra's recording. If your program is for private use or part of a school program, you could argue that you aren't violating copyrights because of the “Fair Use” clause under federal copyright law, but you could still be liable--if the copyright holder actually pursued you. It is possible to contact the record company, pay a fee and get permission to use the music. As a copyright holder myself, I’d prefer to be paid when people use my music, just as you would like to be paid if somebody broadcasts your radio drama or "borrows" your plot or dialogue for their TV show. It's up to you.

    Used Record Stores

    Used record stores often have inexpensive CD or vinyl recordings of film scores and classical music. See your local yellow pages under “Records.” In Los Angeles, try Record Surplus, at 11609 W. Pico Blvd., near Barrington (310) 478-4217. They also allow you to listen to used items before you buy, so bring your script with you and try reading the dialogue along to the music you are considering.

Brief Reprise

    Scoring a radio drama is an essential part of presenting it to the audience. Dramatic music provides radio writers and directors with a mighty tool. While effective music can't make a bad script good, the lack of it can make a good script sound bad. Take some time to employ music as a sub-text to guide your audience through the unique world of radio drama. They'll be richer for your efforts to create a whole world before their very ears.

TONY PALERMO is a radio playwright, professional sound effects artist, radio director, composer, and educator based in Los Angeles, California.

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