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What Is a Musical Cue?

By Lee Johnson
Updated May 23, 2024
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A musical cue is a section of a piece of music that is intended to signal the time for a performer to carry out a certain action. This can be used in many different mediums such as in a play or during a musical performance. Musical notes that appear on the staff as smaller than the rest of the notes are a musical cue, which is intended to inform a performer when they are supposed to re-join a piece. Likewise, a certain part of a piece of music played during a theater production could be a signal for an actor to run across stage, or deliver a line.

Understanding the term “cue” is vital to understanding what a musical cue is. A cue is essentially a signal for somebody to do something, like a reminder. Cues are used in various different mediums, but the most common is during stage performances and other acting performances. An actor’s cue to enter a scene may be a certain line of dialogue or a crescendo in a song that is playing. A cue could be anything, as long as the recipient knows what signal he is waiting for.

In orchestras, certain instruments often have an extended break, during which period they are not required for the music. This can result in the player missing the spot that he is supposed to continue playing. The conductor may point to the section or the particular player that is supposed to join in, but they can also be informed through a musical cue. A certain fill played by the violins, for example, may be included in small musical note form on the player’s sheet music so it can serve as a musical cue for him to commence playing.

Acting is a profession dependent on timing, and performing set actions at designated times is vital for the pace of the production. Ordinarily, actors will use a particular line of dialogue as a cue to enter a scene, but a musical cue can also be used. This is particularly common in stage performances, where music has to be played aloud if it is to be included in the performance. An actor wouldn’t be presented with a piece of sheet music, but will be informed of the part of music during which he should enter the scene. This could be anything from a crescendo or diminuendo to a crash of cymbals.

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Discussion Comments
By lighth0se33 — On Dec 12, 2011

My daughter acted in a school play, and she had to depend on a musical cue to know when to come onto the stage. It's a good thing that this was included in the play, because she is pretty forgetful sometimes, and I don't think she would have remembered to walk out there at the right time without the cue.

She didn't have a whole lot of lines, but the timing of her presence was crucial. She played an angel, and she had to rush in to save a sick girl right after the girl finished singing a sad song.

To let my daughter know when the song was finished, the pianist switched to a different song. He started playing the “Hallelujah” song that choirs often sing. It was very distinctive, and as though she had been hypnotized to react to its sound, my daughter flitted out onto the stage at the correct moment.

By StarJo — On Dec 11, 2011

I took part in a musical play at church once. The pastor had rewritten “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to make it relate to Jesus, and each person had one line to sing.

To give us a cue, we each had sheets with the full song written on them. Everyone highlighted their part with a marker. They read along as the words were sung, and they knew that when the line right before their highlighted part had just been sung, it was time for them to sing their part.

In a way, this was both a musical cue and a written cue. It helped a bunch of confused unprofessional people keep in time with the song.

By seag47 — On Dec 11, 2011

@orangey03 – Musical cues help singers and musicians work together harmoniously. I have had several musicians back me up in clubs before, and without a cue, we would have fallen out of time.

Generally, If I am singing a slow song, the musician will start out with a single strum of the guitar. He will play a chord to let me know what key the song is in, so that I don't start out in the wrong key and realize it once he has begun playing.

That has happened to me in the past. I was about a half step away from the key of the song, because the musician told me to start it first. We had rehearsed it a certain way, and once the music came in, I had to quickly adjust my pitch to match it.

By orangey03 — On Dec 10, 2011

I am the songleader at my church, and each week, I depend on musical cues to know when to start singing. Whether we are using guitar or piano music as background, the musician always helps me out.

He will play a short bar of music, usually from the end of the chorus. When he reaches the end of the line, I know that it is my cue to start the song.

This helps me so much. Songleading can be difficult when not everyone in the congregation is musically inclined. They tend to stray and start at strange times if I don't lead them loudly and properly.

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