Memorable. Catchy. Hummable. Good.

There are some standard responses to a new musical’s original score that pervade chat boards, social media, and even critical reviews by professionals. They’re the responses reserved for new scores found to be underwhelming, and they go something like this:

The songs were all completely forgettable. Not catchy. Afterwards I couldn’t remember a single tune.

These are not songs you’ll be humming as you leave the theatre.

Unmemorable melodies. I couldn’t have hummed you a single one the next day.

These aren’t Golden Age melodies. Golden Age melodies were classics, and are still around today, because they were good. These melodies will not be around in fifty years.

And so on. People are very comfortable saying this sort of thing in print and online. I think they must feel like they’re really saying something, really laying down some judgement on a show’s music.

But they’re not. The above statements are useless as critical evaluation, or audience feedback – and if you, dear reader, are given to using them, please stop. Because you’re talking only about yourself.

Permit me to demonstrate, beginning with a 14 year-old Mozart:

Me: Wolfgang, what did you think of the Miserere by Allegri?

14yo Mozart: Dunno. ‘Salright.

Me: Is it true you transcribed the entire piece, all thirteen or so minutes of it, for two separate choirs, after listening to it only once?

14yo Mozart: Yeah, it was a Wednesday. Dad’s always making me do stuff like that. You know, boost my followers. So I went back again and checked it the following Friday. Nailed it.

Me: Wolfgang, I’m a trained musician, and I think I could probably transcribe a few bars of the Miserere upon one listening, especially that bit where the top line soars way up high and comes back down again, but the whole thing? You must have found the piece very memorable.

14yo Mozart: Memorable? Huh. If that’s what you mean by ‘memorable’, every piece is memorable, when you’re as good as I am.

“The following day, I couldn’t remember a single tune” says absolutely nothing about the music. Maybe the music was rubbish, maybe it was magnificent, and maybe you weren’t listening, there’s no way to tell.

If you ask me to pay attention to a show’s Act One score, and hum you some of the tunes at interval, I could probably manage a good portion of three or four of them. But if you don’t give me a heads-up, I might not manage any. That also says nothing about the music.

And even if I remember every single melody, you know who could always kick my arse in that department? 14 year-old Mozart. 14 year-old Mozart could probably write out most of the orchestra parts after one listening, which also says nothing about the quality of the music. It tells us only what we already know about 14 year-old Mozart: he’s better at this than we are.

There is a useful sense of the word “memorable”, but I see it reserved chiefly for performances, or entire shows, as in “Patti gave a memorable performance”, or “It was a memorable night in the theatre”. People who say this don’t mean it literally, as if they could now recite Patti’s entire role for you, and they would look at you very oddly if you asked them to.

So, in the sense of “significant”, or “distinguished”, or (forgive the pun), “noteworthy”, “memorable” has value. But whether you can literally remember a piece after hearing it once or twice says nothing about the piece itself. It’s merely an observation on your aural skills. You’re talking about yourself.

“Catchy”, happily, is applied much more consistently than “memorable”: “having the quality of catching the mind” dates back to the 1830s. And “catchy” is also, amongst music theatre composers at least, a compliment.

Here’s a catchy and memorable Prokofiev tune, so catchy that it backed a TV and cinema perfume campaign in the ’90s:

But is it hummable? No, not really, and it needn’t be, since it’s not written for the human voice. Here’s how most us would fare attempting to hum this one, depending on vocal range:

Unless you’re already the sort of person who regularly hums a Prokofiev ballet around the house, I’m guessing you won’t accurately navigate those what-the-hell octave leaps mixed with semitones I’ve highlighted above, at least not without attentive effort.

All right, so Prokofiev can be catchy without being hummable, but instead, let’s have a melody written for the human voice. In fact, how about a song written for one of the biggest movie musicals in history? A musical whose soundtrack has sold over twenty million copies, and whose songs have been streamed online hundreds of millions of times. Something like The Sound of Music – those tunes are really hummable, right?

Except I’m not talking about The Sound of Music. I’m talking about Aashiqui (1990), which – trust me – is a hugely beloved, massive, hit movie musical. Here’s one of its most popular songs (music by Nadeem–Shravan, lyric by Sameer Anjaan):

Can you hum the vocal line? The main motif is repeated plenty of times, so you’ve certainly had every opportunity. Ah, but how are your Bollywood melisma chops? Here’s that main vocal motif:

I’m guessing, unless you’re pretty well-steeped in Bollywood melodies of the ’80s and ’90s, that you’ll have to practise those melismatic turns. Maybe you can hum a baroque-era aria, or perform gospel riffs for days, but is a tune like this part of your normal listening diet?

If it isn’t, and you can’t hum Main Duniya Bhula Doonga easily, and you argue that this tune is therefore not hummable, you’re just plain, empirically wrong. Millions of people, who are steeped in Bollywood melodies of the ’80s and ’90s, could hum it for you, right now, without notice.

“Hummable” really means “made up of bits I am already familiar with”. It is neither praise nor censure. It’s a function of how much music you listen to, and how similar it is. Songwriters who mix bits of familiar melody, but in interesting new ways, tend to be popular, and repetition really helps. Those who are too original, or not original enough, tend not to be so popular. But once you say you find a tune hummable, you’re not talking about the tune. You’re talking about yourself.

Which brings me to “good”, and wouldn’t it be nice if the best tunes were simply the longest-lived, with no other forces at play? It’s an appealing idea, and utterly at odds with reality. Pachelbel, by that reasoning, wrote one good piece of music. Yet here’s a less familiar work of his, and I think it’s better:

By the “Golden Age” logic, most women couldn’t write decent tunes until about 1800. Indigenous Australians somehow failed to create good beats until after white people showed up. The longer you think about this notion, the dumber it gets. It’s overwhelmingly Western European, male, English-speaking, record-centric, and it works only if you think in very short time spans. If you say a melody from a mere fifty years ago is an “enduring classic”, when that melody has been heavily supported, promoted and preserved by estates and corporations with money to spend and interests to protect, all you’re saying is “this tune has been prominent in my culture within my lifetime”. The tune might be great, or it might be awful. And you’re talking about yourself.

So, pretend we’re in a foyer together, and you’ve just heard my new score. Pretend you’ve had one too many wines, and you say this to me:

Peter, I just didn’t find any of your tunes hummable tonight. Right now, I can’t remember a single one. They’re not – you know – Golden Age melodies?

I was raised to be polite, so I will say:

I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you enjoy whatever I write next.

But I will be thinking:

You dear, sweet thing, I couldn’t give a flying fuck.

If you want to talk music, I’m all ears. If you want to say my tunes are derivative, or boring, or not suited to the human voice, hooray, let’s do this. But all you’ve said in this scenario is:

Peter, I don’t have a great aural memory. And while I profess to listen to a wide range of music, I don’t, really. Also, what I do listen to sounds pretty much the same.

So excuse me, but I’m off to the bar. I’ll come back when you’re done.

An Inspiring Artistic Manifesto, If Somewhat Naïve

Here’s the question that was asked on Quora, by Chris Mojo:

What is the process one goes through to develop and write a new, original musical production for the stage?

In other words, disregarding budgetary restrictions, etc – how would you explain and map out the process of bringing a story in someone’s head to life as a musical theater production? What thought processes does a playwright use to develop the initial idea into a working story, then develop and incorporate songs, and end up with a cohesive product suitable to be moved along for presentation? The questions leans more specifically towards the actual writing process one goes through prior to moving it to staging etc.
Here’s my answer. It is, I hope, one for the ages rather than one for these times:
Answers to this sort of question tend to be discouraging, along the lines of “Oh, darling, there are as many paths as there are travellers … (jaded sigh, sip from wine glass)”, so I’m going to be tremendously encouraging. Also, since playwrights should already know about developing characters, raising stakes, foreshadowing etc., I’m going to answer with musical-specific matters in mind.
1. Have an idea, and then let it suggest its own form. This is really important. Ask yourself: “what kind of show would I like to see made from this idea? Is it a little, intimate thing in a tiny black box? Is it six short pieces, 10 mins each? Is it a mighty 20 000 seat spectacle? Does it run over three successive nights?” Most crucially, “Why does it need music? How is singing better than talking as a way to tell this tale?” Play with all your options, and be prepared for changes, later.

This very early stage is, I think, completely undervalued, because everyone tends to make the same decisions, based on commercial considerations. “Well, it’s in two acts, it’s two hours long, and it plays in a 1000-seat theatre.”

Maybe. Maybe not. This might be something that fits in a Broadway house, or it might be a YouTube series. It might be a one-person show, or it might employ an entire town.

What you’re trying to avoid here is wasting years of your life on an idea you don’t love, written for the wrong reasons. For example, “‘Pixar’s Cars – The Musical, On Broadway!’ Yes, family shows are hot right now, and all kids love cars, so that will work. I’ll be famous and rich.”

No, it won’t, and you won’t.

2. Plot the show. This process is also completely undervalued, because everyone tends to make the same decisions, based on commercial considerations. “Well, it’s in two acts, and the female gets an ‘I Want’ song in Act One, followed by a big ballad in Act Two. The guy’s a hunk.”

Maybe. Maybe not. What works for your story, and what have you never seen or heard before? Maybe there’s only one character who sings. Maybe all the characters sing, except for one. Maybe that song shouldn’t go in the obvious spot. Maybe entire scenes should be set to music. Maybe events should happen in real time. Maybe there’s no reason to sing after all, and it should be a play.

I think music is incredibly under-used in most musicals. Regardless of story, too many of them are cut from the same template: up-tempo numbers, ballads, 12-15 songs, 3-5 mins each. We can all be more inventive.

Also, here’s what musical writers tend to forget about writing: it’s virtually free. It costs nothing but time, if you don’t count electricity, bandwidth and printer ink. And here’s the other good news about writing: it’s incredibly easy to change. You can add three characters at this stage, without costing tens of thousands of dollars. You can cut three characters without making anyone cry. So make the writing as good, as fresh, as pleasantly surprising as you can possibly make it, right here, right now, and be prepared for it to change later.

Above all, don’t be one of those writers who says “Yeah, we’re doing ‘Pixar’s Cars – The Musical, On Broadway!’, and we’re just waiting for some funding before we start the writing process. We’ve booked a theatre, we’re sourcing cast, and the technical team are building a speedway, but we’re not firming up the music just yet. Maybe next month.”

This is how bad, under-written, over-produced shows happen.

3. Have a table read-through. I mean a sit-down, scripts-in-front-of-actors, piano-only read-through. No orchestrations, no costumes, no members of the public. Invite, if it’s appropriate to the show, a director, a designer, a choreographer, a producer. This may be one person. Pay your cast and crew, because these people are deserving professionals, and you can expect more from professionals whom you have treated as such.

Ask for feedback from performers. How does this character feel to play? How do these notes and words feel to sing? What do you enjoy? What do you not understand? Listen to them.

Ask for feedback from directors, designers, choreographers, producers. What parts would work better visually? Which characters matter? What parts might be made simpler, more elegant? Where might dance replace everything? Who might enjoy this show?

They will suggest cuts. Listen to them. Your show is almost certainly too long.

Record your read-through, with everyone’s permission and signed release forms. Listen to it after a few days, when the euphoria has worn off.

4. Re-write your show. Remember how cheap this part of the process is? So now, be dazzling. Move things. Overturn the cosmos. But keep all your old drafts.

5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4, until the show needs to be put on its feet.

6. Put it on its feet. Invite people.

Now, this may be as far as the show gets. It might be really good, and still go no further. But look at what you’re offering the world: a thoughtful, well-crafted, collaborative piece of musical theatre, telling its story in an engaging, provoking, watchable, musical way. There can be no shame in this.

Also, as a writer, you have almost no control over funding, or theatre availability, or marketing, or international trends. So ignore them. This is where you have control: a riveting story, with compelling characters and wonderful songs. So make them.