What Is Incidental Music? With 7 Top Examples & History
What is incidental music? This is what we discuss today. We go over the characteristics of incidental music, some examples of it, the musicians who make this music, the history of incidental music and more.
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Incidental Music Definition
Incidental music appears in dramatic work to enhance the mood, much as lighting design might in a play.
They gave the world democracy, but the Greeks also gave us theater and the concept of incidental music. Asian theatrical traditions like Noh theater have used incidental music for centuries, as well.
Neither of these traditions used much original music– that is, music written specifically for this or that production– but rather used musical lines with cultural relevance that the audiences would have understood. This allowed the music to make specific messages to the audience about what was happening onstage.
Incidental Music Characteristics
If you’re watching, for example, a sad scene in a play, the lighting designer will likely use cooler colors like blue to emphasize the low mood. Incidental music can perform the same function, as the soundtrack to that scene might be written in a minor key.
On the other hand, a triumphant scene might use bright tempos and happy sounds like those from a trumpet section.
7 Examples of Incidental Music
Henry Purcell, a 17th-century British composer, wrote incidental music for plays by people like William Shakespeare, Francis Beaumont, and John Dryden. Many composers since have created lasting works.
1. “Wedding March”
Felix Mendelssohn wrote this piece as incidental music for Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” It’s difficult to imagine this piece being performed today for any reason other than a couple getting married, but it began as incidental music.
Yes, characters in the play were getting married, but the first audiences to hear this piece didn’t yet associate it with matrimony.
2. “In The Hall of the Mountain King”
Edvard Grieg composed this piece for a production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.” Even if you’ve never heard of “Peer Gynt,” you might know this composition as it has since appeared in other productions as incidental music.
Some of Georges Bizet's compositions for “L'Arlésienne,” a play by Alphonse Daudet, have remained honored pieces of music even as the play for which it was written has fallen out of favor. The “Farandole” melody has been adapted as a traditional Christmas carol called “Three Great Kings.”
4. “Entr'acte No. 3 (Andantino)”
Helmina von Chézy’s 1823 play “Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern” has been almost completely forgotten, while Schubert's music for it has endured. This “Andantino” isn’t as instantly recognizable as other examples, but it remains an essential piece of Schubert’s body of work.
Composer Bernard Hermann gave Alfred Hitchcock the staccato, clashing sounds of the violins playing in the background as Norman Bates attacks his victim in the shower. The sound, stabbing in its own right, adds to the scene’s disturbing nature.
Before a shark attack, we hear two slow, low notes from the double bass. As the shark gets closer, the notes repeat, getting faster and faster. The viewer just knows something terrible is coming.
7. “Return of the Jedi”
One of the best examples of incidental music comes from “Star Wars.” Throughout the films, Darth Vader and the Empire’s theme music is the “Imperial Death March,” an ominous piece of music that signals bad guys are close.
But (spoiler alert) once Luke has defeated Vader and brought him back from the Dark Side, the theme gets turned on its head.
Vader lay dying, and in a poignant moment, the “Death March” plays in the background. However, instead of the low brass instruments we’ve been hearing it on, it’s on a harp— it’s still Vader’s melody, but he’s dying as a redeemed man.
5 Top Incidental Musicians
Having the answer to what is incidental music is one thing, but who are the most famous people associated with it? Every genre has its top-of-the-class elite, and incidental music is no different.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven
Born to German parents in 1870, Beethoven served as a bridge between the classical and romantic music eras. He wrote nine symphonies, nearly all hugely influential and enduring, many piano sonatas, and other works, including operas.
He began losing his hearing at age 26 and composed his ninth and final symphony while deaf. He died in 1827.
2. Edvard Grieg
Hailing from Norway, Grieg lived from 1843 to 1907. He was recognized as a virtuoso pianist in his teens and gave his first concert in 1861. Greig studied music at a conservatory in Leipzig, Germany, founded by Felix Mendelssohn.
3. Georges Bizet
Born to a pianist mother, French composer Bizet showed talent shortly after his 1838 birth. Though some of his incidental music remains well-known, Bizet was mostly an opera composer, writing “Djamileh” and “Carmen,” among others.
Bizet died in France in 1875, shortly after the premiere of “Carmen,” never knowing its success.
4. Franz Schubert
Born in 1797 in Austria, Schubert quickly learned piano, violin, and organ and developed a reputation as an outstanding singer. As a boy, he studied at a musical academy in Austria, but that ended when his voice changed.
He began teaching and composing, writing many operettas, piano works, and string quartets. In 1828, he died in Vienna.
5. John Williams
Native New Yorker John Williams’ music for films has taken him and his compositions around the world. Born in 1932, Williams began as a pianist, playing jazz gigs as a young adult and studying at Julliard.
His film scoring career started in the late 1950s and never flagged. He wrote some of the world's most recognizable music, from the themes for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Superman.” With more than 50 Oscar nominations, Williams is the most-Oscar-nominated person alive.
The History of Incidental Music
While opera and musical theater might seem similar, they’re not incidental music. Incidental music isn’t the featured element of the play, film, radio drama, or video game in which it appears. It could be described in an oversimplified manner as background music.
Incidental music does not further the plot nor flesh out a character (other than perhaps helping the audience associate a mood or feeling with a specific character). In this way, it differs from musical theater, in which actors sing lyrics to flesh out their characters or propel the plot.
Incidental Music Today
We most often encounter incidental music in film and television soundtracks. Incidental music in film has become so ubiquitous that when a movie like M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 film “Signs”– an exceedingly quiet film– premieres, its almost total lack of music bears mention by critics and audience members.
Film composition has its roots in the kinds of incidental music mentioned above, but it also dates to vaudeville acts, whose music became associated with silent films.
The heyday of incidental music as a genre came a few centuries ago. Some famous names wrote incidental music, and some were for work by brilliant writers whose work could benefit from the composers’ contributions.
Most films today use incidental music containing musical themes and melodies associated with the main characters or specific actions in the movie.
What Is Incidental Music? Final Thoughts
Incidental music has held a place in dramatic storytelling for millennia. While it has undergone many changes throughout history, it remains a powerful tool for storytellers. It can suggest a mood, define a scene, or introduce specific characters.
Without it, making an emotional connection with an audience can be much more difficult.
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