The Music Beyond the Songs

If you look in the score for your average full-length musical and open to the table of contents, you’ll usually see a listing of somewhere between 25 and 40 numbered pieces of music. But when you count up the songs for a show, you usually only come up with around 15 unique tunes. So…what’s with the difference? What is the orchestra DOING down there when they’re playing but there’s no song happening? Well…it could be a lot of things! Here are some of the terms for the music that’s happening when no one is singing.


It’s common for songs or scenes to have music underneath them even though no one is singing. Music used in this way is called underscoring and it helps to set the mood, build tension, or, when used in the middle of song, to keep the momentum moving between sung moments. In Newsies, the show that TCTC did in summer of 2019, most of the big numbers (and the small numbers for that matter) had moments of underscoring in the middle of them. Underscoring is often timed out by the composer so that the number of measures fits the length of dialogue, but sometimes a composer will use a vamp or safety, which is a repeated section of measures, to stall the orchestra while the actors finish up their dialogue


Most people think of a song as a self-contained musical morsel, you start it, sing it, end it, and the audience claps. But a composer (and the music director) has to think of what happens after the applause. Will the actors just start the next scene? Will they walk off in silence? We use a type of music called a playoff to keep things moving and to ease the audience into the next scene. The playoff music is often just a repeat of the final moments of the song they just heard, sometimes with the singing (although that’s usually called a tag), but more often it’s just the instruments alone. In musicals, the songs usually happen at the end of a scene, so sometimes the playoff music will transition into a scene change.


Think of a tag as a playoff where the actors interrupt your applause by singing the end of the song again. It’s like a little encore. Sometimes the audience will clap again after the tag, and sometimes it transitions seamlessly into the next scene.

Scene Change

In order to ease the transitions between scenes, set pieces, locations, or any other dramatic change in the show, we can use scene change music to carry the audience from one place to another. I like to think of scene change music sort of like an establishing shot in cinema. You’ve seen an establishing shot before, even if you haven’t thought about what it is. An establishing shot might show us an exterior shot of the apartment that our next scene takes place in, before the camera then shows up inside the apartment. This helps us to know where we are in space and time. Scene change music can help in the same way, sometimes with a snippet of a song we’ve heard before, or a preview of the song we’re about to hear, or sometimes with new music that just sets the mood for us. Scene changes rarely have singing in them.


The reprise is a chance to bring back a song from earlier in the show. Sometimes the song will be sung and performed in full, or with changed lyrics, but more often it’s been shortened, or only a part of the number will be brought back. Reprises are almost always sung. They usually exist as a form of reference to make us associate the current moment in the play with the time we heard the song earlier in the play. For example, in Urinetown, when Mr. Cladwell and Ms. Pennywise sing the “We’re Not Sorry Reprise”, a wistful and brief love duet expressing their lack of regret over the decisions they’ve made in life, it uses a resetting of melodic and thematic materials from the full company number “We’re Not Sorry”, a song we just heard moments before. It takes what was a bloodthirsty, self-justified murderous spree and turns it into a love song. By using the same song in two different ways, the audience can draw the parallel between protagonist and antagonist and realize that they may not be that far apart from each other after all.

Overture and Entr’acte

Musicals, like operas, usually begin with an overture. The musical theater overture has changed over time, and especially over the last few decades. Where earlier overtures used to be an orchestral overview of the major themes of the musical and last for several minutes, modern overtures are usually short and simply set the mood for the opening scene. The entr’acte serves a similar purpose to the overture, but for the second act of the show. Entr’actes usually pick up some themes from where the first act left off. You can think of it as a musical “previously on…” Both pieces of music also help the audience know when to quiet down for the show to begin.


Musicals usually have music after the finale to serve as underscoring for the bows. This number almost always has orchestra reprises of all of the best melodies from the show. It can help remind the audience of all of their favorite songs so they’ll be singing it as they go home! Some modern musicals have the actors sing after they’ve bowed, which means the audience claps again which means we then need exit music.

Exit Music

Exit music is mostly used for when the bows have more singing in them. It’s essentially one final playoff, a chance for the actors to get off the stage, the lights to come up, and the orchestra to play the audience out the door.

Sometimes composers will surprise us with even more types of musical mayhem in the score, but if you’re looking to put names onto all of those extra numbers this will give you a jump start!

[cue exit music]