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What is Incidental Music?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Incidental music is music used to accompany a dramatic performance. It may be utilized for plays, radio shows, films, and television, and incidental music is often a very important part of a production, especially in the film world. Depending on the production, the incidental music can be composed specifically for the production, or already existing music may be used; when incidental music is commissioned specifically for a performance, it can be expensive for the producers.

The idea of incidental music is quite ancient: the Greeks, for example, used incidental music in their plays, drawing upon the rich body of ritual liturgy to enhance the look, mood, and feel of their performances on the stage. Many ancient Asian dramatic arts also utilize incidental music, and, as with the Greeks, the music often had very specific symbolic meaning which would have been well-understood by members of the audience.

The popularity of incidental music in performance has waxed and waned historically, but never vanished entirely. This could be considered a testimony to the power of music, because music can completely alter the mood and tone of a piece in a way which could not be accomplished otherwise. Music can brighten a scene, create tension, or underscore the sadness or horror of an event, and some incidental music has gone on to be famous in its own right. Many classical composers, for example, composed pieces for plays and other performances which later came to be used in standalone performance.

Incidental music fills the intervals between scenes and acts, works as a background for dialogue, and sometimes becomes the star of a scene, as in the case of a dance scene in a movie. Composition of incidental music can be very challenging, as the composer must be able to evoke the desired mode while working within very specific scene and time constraints. Depending on the project, a composer may work alone, with synthesizers and other tools, or he or she may utilize a suite of musicians ranging from a quartet to an orchestra to get the desired sound.

Characters are often enriched by the incidental music which accompanies them, with many major characters having their own themes. Composers may also create musical themes related to specific events in the performance, like a love theme for two characters, or a theme which is meant to evoke the antagonistic relationship between two characters. While viewers and listeners are often unaware of the importance of incidental music, being aware of it while absorbing a performance can be very revealing.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By julies — On May 04, 2012

@bagley79 - I agree that it can be hard for many musicians to find an outlet when they are out of high school or college.

We attend a large church that has an orchestra and puts on several productions throughout the year.

The members of our orchestra are not paid, but this group is made up of some very talented musicians. They use their talent during most of our live productions.

We are in the process of building a new church which will include an actual orchestra pit. This will really make a nice addition to our sanctuary.

Right now, they sit up on the stage, but this also takes up space the performers in the play could be using.

For me, there is nothing better than live music. I know you can accomplish the same thing electronically, but using a live orchestra to provide the incidental music is very pleasing.

By myharley — On May 04, 2012

Incidental music can play a huge part in the dramatic effect of a production.

If you have ever watched a scary movie clip without the sound, you realize how much of an influence the incidental music has.

The scary scenes don't seem nearly as frightening and your senses are not as keen without the incidental music. Many times it is the build-up of the music that really gets your heart pounding fast.

It can work the same way with a romantic scene. The incidental music that is played for these scenes really sets the stage and tugs at the emotions.

By bagley79 — On May 03, 2012

There are many television and radio programs people recognize just from listening to some of the incidental music that is included with their production.

Sometimes it is an introductory or ending song, and other times it is a song that has become famous as a standalone from that particular show.

I have attended several live theater events and whether it is a musical or not, if incidental music is played, it always a special touch to the production.

There are many people who have played instruments throughout high school and college, and then hardly ever play them again.

A local community theater in our area uses many of these musicians when they are putting on a production. It gives the musicians an opportunity to play their chosen instrument, and be a part of a production at the same time.

By anon42039 — On Aug 18, 2009

good explanation.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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