How to write a musical
(basically, if I can do it, then so can you!)
This is a very quick overview of the process, and by no means a complete guide, but hopefully it should get you thinking.
Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the ‘Write your own story and song Challenge’.
The parts of the puzzle
A great story
The absolute first thing I would recommend is to find a story or idea that you care about – something that has some meaning for you, because you’re going to be living with it for a long, long time. You will analyse it, sweat over it, change it, love it, hate it and spend money on it.
- The story idea (what is your story about?)
- an underlying theme (good v/s evil, or truth always prevails or something else)
- the timespan of the story (it could be set over a day or it could be a lifetime or a century)
- the characters (who are they, what makes them tick, what do they want v/s what do they need?, and why do we care about them??)
- conflict (something/somebody must be an obstacle to what the protagonist wants)
- resolution (does the protagonist/hero get what they want? or do they die trying? or do they fail?)
If you haven’t studied literature or creative writing, then at the very least I would recommend reading ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. It’s a great starting point on the discipline of writing – for beginners and experts.
[I had studied English Literature in my Bachelor’s degree many years earlier, so I had a fairly good idea about these concepts when I dove into writing the musical. I had also written some short films, and a full length feature film script; all that practice and discussion definitely helped with clearer ideas, faster writing, greater efficiency.]
I care a great deal about climate change. I can talk about it for days. It has been a subject of great discussion and debate amongst scientists and politicians since the mid 1980s, but it has remained in the rarified atmosphere of those people most of this time. It’s only now that it has become a part of mainstream discussion after Greta Thunberg brought it into the media spotlight. When I started writing the musical in late 2015, the subject of climate change was still rarely discussed.
The elevator pitch: It’s a journey story of two brothers into an ecological dystopian future. A story of love and loss, of greed and redemption. It’s a global awareness program, in the ancient tradition of song and dance and theatre – to tell a moral tale, to raise awareness, to ask questions. It’s fun, it’s dark, it’s real, it’s current and it’s important.
I have been a hobbyist composer for about 20 years now but have never been in a band or recorded anything commercially. The only RULE I have is that no two songs that I create, should be alike. And they must all be original. I am fortunate to have grown up with many musical influences, they range from jazz, pop, rock, blues, classical, folk, R&B, funk, hip-hop and musical theatre, to Indian classical, Indian folk, Bollywood, ghazals, thumri etc.
Formal training: I’ve only had 2 years of piano, a year of saxophone, and a year of Hindustani classical voice training. That is very little ‘formal education’ in the world of music. People typically study one instrument for 15-20 years to become good at it.
The good and the bad: I am firmly of the opinion that my limited formal training allowed me to be a free-thinker. There are a lot of people who have studied music for years and decades, and they do not compose original content at all!!! The “bad” about my lack of formal training is that because of my limited theory and playing ability – I was not able to do more arrangements or write notation myself. I had to work with other musicians who had these skills and would be ‘willing and able’ to collaborate with me, to bring my music to life – as precise notation and rich and accurate arrangements. Finding the right collaborators can take years. I have to thank Julieanne Patmore and James Fuller for their invaluable help.
Music is a rich and complex and complete language – which I know only a little bit about, at the technical level – but I know what I like and I know how to create it. So for this musical – once I had set the basic storyline – I knew that I would need:
- songs of celebration
- songs of warning
- songs of lament
- an army march etc.
I knew that I would need solos, duets and chorus songs. I also knew that the songs will need to be catchy, and easy to sing since they are meant for school students to perform, and the lyrics will be very straightforward (the whole point is to simplify and make accessible all the science and logic behind climate change science. If everybody read scientific journals, then we wouldn’t need this musical!)
When it comes to making music yourself – you have to remember that not many of us are geniuses. So there will be a lot of rubbish and some good stuff. Create the rubbish in the journey to finding the good stuff, but have the courage and discipline to keep only the good stuff. Be brutal about removing the rubbish. I must have written over 100 tunes, and the early draft of the musical had 45 songs – but for the show we brought it down to 27 songs. Some of the 45 were turned into dialogue, some were dropped completely.
While ‘musical theatre’ is a genre of music in itself – I was keen to use different genres of music to add variety and to suit the story. So we have rock, soft ballads, an army march, carnival sounds, and a sad love song. You can hear all the tracks on the music page.
I also bring a different personal and cultural perspective to the musical – while the Western world knows musicals as Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber centric medium – for me, as an Indian – I have grown up watching folk musical theatre performed from our ancient mythological stories – The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. And – ALL Bollywood movies are musicals!! So when someone asks why I (a photographer with a literature degree) wanted to/ thought I could write a musical, I had to look no further than my past.
For the technical folk: Some of my songs are ‘modal’. Can you guess which ones? (I have to confess, I did not know they were modal when I wrote them, I only knew they sounded dark and sinister or mysterious – which is what I wanted.)
THE PHONE’S ‘VOICE MEMO’ APP
I start with the music in my head. Often while driving. The hum of the engine and the rhythm of the wheels will trigger musical ideas. That is exactly what happened when I was driving a few days after reading my friend’s paper on climate change. I spontaneously thought up 3 little songs. If I like what’s in my head, then I quickly record it on my phone. If you don’t record it, you are very likely going to forget it in 10 minutes.
Once I had started writing the musical, I was much more diligent about thinking about the story, what sort of song would come next, what sort of sound it would have (happy, sad, mellow, minimal, full band) – and then recording ideas into the phone.
CREATING HOME RECORDINGS
Computer + Keyboard + DAW (music software)
The next step is spending time re-doing the song into the computer’s music software. All of my home recordings were done with a software called Garageband (I have an Apple computer) – but you can get free music recording software for PC also.
The MOST important thing at this stage is to record your tune with a metronome so that you are keeping time. Once you have hummed or sung your new song idea into the software, you can add additional tracks to make the music sound nicer.
Piano – I will often play a keyboard which is linked to the software – a midi keyboard which connect with a USB to the computer, and then Garageband recognises it as a source of input. Then I chose any of the hundreds of instruments that are in the software. I almost always do the MELODY line that I had sung with a Piano sound. Then I mute the humming.
Strings – if you know even basic chords, laying down another track with the chords of the song gives the song a lot of richness if you use orchestral strings.
Drums – use the drum instruments to key in your own – or use a basic drum loop from the software’s library – that gives the RHYTHM to the song.
The MAIN reason for doing a decent home recording is – so that your new music/song/idea makes sense to anyone else listening to it. It’s not just a scratchy mishmash that’s playing with a full orchestra in your head and sounding amazing only to you.
That’s it really: write the script, compose the songs and you’re done.
Putting on a full production is a whole other bag of chips!! Sets, costumes, cast, rehearsal space, managing schedules, raising money, performance venue, publicity, selling tickets, posters, flyers…
Write your own story and song Challenge:
Now that you know what needs to be done – here’s a challenge for you to try out yourself – no matter how old you are, and how much music you’ve studied.
1 – Write a short story – it must have 1 or more characters – something must happen. It should be at least 3 minutes long to read or perform.
2 – Write a song that fits in with the story – it must reveal something about the story or the character. It can be happy or sad.
- Write the lyrics to the song, (and ideally the melody should be something original)
- Record the song a few times till you get it right – even if you’re just singing into your phone’s voice memo app – while keeping-time tapping the table.
Then if you are happy with the story and song – rehearse it a few times in front of the mirror.
Then perform it for your parents/friends/teacher and record it. At the very least it will be a fun memory when you are older.
All the best, and remember – have fun with it!! 🙂