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Last updated: October 30, 2018

Music Scoring For Radio Plays - Part 2

Notes toward a detailed essay on scoring methodology for audio theatre/radio drama. It is intended for musicians approaching this unique genre, but also will be useful to any radio dramatist seeking to use music in their productions. If you haven't read my essay on  Scoring for Audio Theatre - Part 1, I suggest you stop here and go read it, as this essay builds upon what I've written on that page.

Radio Play Scoring - A musician's perspective

    Nobody sells anything like "Great Scores for Radio Drama"--a CD to meet the unique requirements of the radio medium! Even library music doesn't hit all the marks for radio shows.

    Since I'm a musician as well as dramatist, I score my own shows. It's quicker than searching through hundreds of film soundtracks and since I composed it, there are no problems with copyrights or permissions. "Needle drops" of library music are expensive and require searching.  Plus these "found sounds" don't always sync to the mood your script requires. A custom underscore does wonders for your shows.

    You could hire a musician to score your shows, but the genre is a bit outside most musicians' experience--especially radio drama. I don't quite know how the non-composing writers get exactly what they want. I suppose you settle for what you get. However, radio scoring is a skill and can be learned--but, with the lack of instruction materials available, I doubt it can be taught--except by yourself.

    I've had to translate my musical skills (Pop, R&B, Jazz) into the rarefied world of scoring. It was not an easy transition and there was little instruction to be found anywhere regarding how radio scores differ from the film/TV variety. If you haven't already, I suggest you stop here and go read my essay about Scoring for Audio Theatre - Part 1 as the rest of this essay builds on what I've written on that page.

    That essay is actually directed at school teachers and radio buffs who need to score their plays--often with records (what's now glorified by the title "Music Supervision"). However, my essay could help educate a pop musician in the styles and requirements for radio drama. It's a different mind-set that takes a while to get used to.

To get yourself or a musician friend started in radio scoring

    Start with a good listening of what radio scores sound like (Soap Opera organs, The Lone Ranger scoring records, The Shadow, the small ensembles used in 1940s shows, etc.) Listen for the act-ins, act-outs (also called play-ins/play-outs) the stings, beds, bridges, rip-chords, instrumental casting, cue lengths, moods, etc. Make notes of what musical device accomplishes what dramatic effect (or doesn't). Before you can write something, you need to know what can be done in the genre. This way you don't waste time reinventing the wheel. When starting off, I'd avoid dissecting film soundtracks or listening to videos with the picture off--they are fine for what they are, but radio drama is its own sub-genre.

    To score, you'll need an instrument. I suggest a sampler/synthesizer (I suppose a PC sound card could also serve). You could score with a single trumpet or guitar, but keyboards have more sounds available. You'll find a musical sequencer program essential in orchestrating several instruments. (for PC: Cakewalk Sonar, Master Tracks Pro, etc. For Mac: Vision, Logic, Cubase, etc.)  Many musicians have this gear already, so if you find somebody who plays keyboards--you're probably halfway there.

Now onto radio scoring school

    First try imitating a couple of different cues. (I cut my scoring teeth by imitating the cues from Alan Ladd's 1940s Box 13 show.) You might want to start with The Shadow since its music is just an organ and very powerful. In fact, it's heavy-handed, but there are times when you need that kind of dramatic firepower. The suspense shows of the 1940s used small ensembles and thus are fairly easy to reverse-engineer for their orchestrations. I think The Adventures of Philip Marlowe is one of the best scored radio programs ever. You can pick up a lot by imitating the greats.

A few pointers about scoring for radio

  • Don't use much melody--a music cue is not a song! Melodies can pull a listener's attention away from the dialogue. Plus with no visual image of the actor speaking, the listener has to work harder to focus on the dialogue--more than when watching a film. Interesting melodies are only good for bridges or program themes. Radio drama requires minimal melodies. This melodic limitation often pulls the rug from under musicians learning to score. Also, cues don't have typical chord structures (AABA, AAB, etc.)--instead, they mostly create a mood and stay there (AAAAAAAAAA) or (AAAAAAAAAA--B).

  • Try to stay out of the actors' way by keeping instruments out of the range of the human voice (like woodwinds or cellos). If you are composing a bed, keep the musical elements underneath the dialogue or the mixer will do it for you by turning down the music volume and nobody will hear your score. You thus have failed to serve the drama, which is a composer's number one function.

  • Get one of those little piano chord dictionary books that list 24 chords in each key (C M7, C dim7, C aug11, C 13b9, etc.) and play those chords. Each one has a slightly different shade of mood. Make note of which chord delivers which effect. You can throw one of these babies in as needed and then drop a short melody on top for rip chords, stings, beds, act-outs, etc.
  •    At J.W. Pepper's music website do a music search for:
                  Piano Collection/Method
                  Alfred Publishing Co.
                  # 4916391 . . . .7.50

  • For long suspense beds under dialogue, I toss the chord dictionary and instead compose with moving melodic lines. This minimalist style can easily hit whatever dramatic bits are called for and add tension just by going up a half-step. It's the Bernard Herrmann school of scoring--remember, Benny got his start at CBS with Orson Welles and Norman Corwin and he was still doing "Crime Classics" in the mid-1950s between Hitchcock films. Similarly, today's film music maestro, Jerry Goldsmith, started at CBS Radio in the late 1950s scoring, first, with records, then with 3 and 4 piece ensembles. It's amazing what you can do with 4 pieces moving in tandem and apart.

  • When mixing down your score, boost the bass frequencies. Radio scores are meant to be heard UNDER dialogue, so they are often played quietly. At low volumes, the human ear "rolls off" the bass--home stereos have those "Loudness" buttons to compensate for this phenomena. Since many of your cues (and especially music beds) will be heard at low volumes, you must compensate for the bass roll off by boosting your bass when you mix. Otherwise, your cues, which sound fine at regular music listening volumes, will sound thin when used in a radio show.

So once you've learned by imitating other cues, here's my method for scoring

  1. Read over the radio script to "spot" where music should be (and even more importantly, where it SHOULDN'T be). When starting out, try just composing bridges and stings--leave the music beds for after you've gotten the hang of it.

  3. Record the dialogue to be underscored to your computer. In Cakewalk, the audio is just another track in my sequence. I started with a stop watch and paper script and tried to compose to the clock, but found it much easier to accompany the actual dialogue as spoken.

  5. While listening to the dialogue, play along, recording into the sequencer. See if the music fits; try another approach; build onto it by adding other instruments (Long timpani rolls are great for adding tension). Unless the cue is a music bed, it won't be long, so you won't have many melody notes or chord changes to deal with. You are not playing a song, but rather pulling emotions out of the air.

  7. Watch out for conflicts with surrounding music cues as to tempo, melody or key. Avoid samey-ness. List all the script parts you are scoring and sort them by the "feel" each must evoke, then structure scenes with similar feels to use variations on a musical device. It unifies your score.


NOTE: This page is a work-in-progress--check back again for more.

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

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