Without any improvement in your magical talents, incorporating music into your show will turn a three-star performance into a five-star experience. Your show will appear more polished, boring parts will vanish, and you’ll be seen as a more professional performer.
Borrowing from the traditions of professional theatre, here are ten ways you can add music to your magic show.
House music is played in the theatre as the audience enters, finds their seat, and waits for the show to begin. It is primarily used for social engineering. If you’ve ever sat in a silent theatre, you know how awkward that feels. A little background music helps people to settle in, relax, and comfortably chat with friends. Do not let people in the theatre until the house music has started playing.
Your pre-show playlist is a chance to influence the mood of your audience. In most cases magicians use upbeat feel-good music, often including current popular music. However, if you have a show that is set in a specific time and/or place your house music can start to reinforce that setting.
The overture comes from the days of opera and orchestral concerts. The tradition carries on in movies. An overture is the “world-building” music that often plays during the opening credit sequence, before the story begins. It introduces musical themes, sets the tone, and gets the audience aligned with the show they are about to watch.
In a live theatre environment, the lights would begin to dim as the overture starts, causing the audience to go quiet. As the overture concludes, curtains will open, stage lights fade in, and the anticipation peaks.
Mac King uses If You’re Happy and You Know It as his overture. He calls it is “opening act”. It sets the tone for his show and gets the audience to enter the world he has created.
After an act is verbally introduced (ie: “Here’s Johnny!”) walk-on music bursts through with a punch, maintains energy while the audience applauds, and fades out precisely as the performer hits their mark. This is one of those details which makes a show feel professional.
A prime example is any late night talk shows with a live band. As a guest is introduced, the band strikes up a short piece of music, which gently crescendos just as the guest settles onto the couch.
In a multi-performer cabaret, each performer’s walk-on music becomes their own mini-overture, chosen to best suit the style and feeling of the act about to begin.
Watch: Ryan talks through the sound cues from a not-so-recent theatre show.
Act To Music
This is the most common use of music in magic shows; when the music is loud, and the act is silent. The performance is synchronized to the music, like a dance. This is such a standard practice in the magic world, I really have nothing else to say about it.
As a speaking act, this is one of my favourite ways to use music in my show. The music is quiet enough for me to speak at a normal level, yet when I go silent, the music can clearly be heard to fill the gaps. It allows my script to be minimalistic without being boring.
Not all music is well-suited to be an underscore. Lyrics don’t work here, as they’d be competing with your own words. The music should be simple and steady. Dramatic changes or energetic drums are too distracting.
When I’m picking underscores, I will often cut out a short part of a song (usually near the beginning, before it gets going) and loop it over and over again.
In one part of my show, I use a sequence of three underscores, all plucked from different parts of the same song. The first is just a basic beat, the second phase adds something to it, and the third adds another level. As my presentation progresses, I’m able to gradually increase the energy of the underscore to match my script. It makes it feel like a true soundtrack, as if it was written for my show.
Much like a cartoon (or, of course, the Human Cartoon Sylvester the Jester!) sound effects add impact to specific moment in a show. In the days of a live band, magicians might work with the drummer to add rimshots and cymbal crashes to accentuate the magic moments. Live bands have been largely replaced by technology, and now sound effects are available at the push of a button.
Personally, I have not used Sound FX much in my show thus far. It’s challenging, though by no means impossible, to incorporate them when you are a solo act, controlling your own music.
I would suggest restraint when sprinkling these into your show. Too many effects, and I think it crosses the line from dramatic impact to comedic effect.
Filling The Empty Stage
Another professional polish on the show is to ensure the stage is never left empty. If and when you step off stage, you can fill the void with music.
When going into the audience to work with audience volunteers, upbeat music will maintain the energy over the lull in action. Many magicians, a la Copperfield, will use music for people to “clap along,” which also helps you seek out those who are actively participating in the show.
If you need to tuck behind the curtain to bring out your next illusion for a few seconds, the silent empty stage will feel like an eternity. A little music makes it all feel like part of the show.
Finale and Transition
Just as Walk-On music gets you off to a good start, a similar splash of Finale music helps you nail the landing. I have this music come in at the climactic reveal of a routine, just as I want the audience to burst into applause.
It’s especially helpful at the end of longer routines, which may have involved some “magician in trouble” failure moments. The sudden music reinforces the triumphant “he did it!” feel, and cues the audience that this really is the end.
If the Finale music is extended, it will also cover up any gaps as you transition to your next routine. The music keeps playing while the audience volunteer is sent back to their seat, it keeps going while you put away your props and grab the next item, and it continues right up until you’re back to center stage ready to start talking. It makes the whole transition feel seamless and polished.
Certainly your final routine should have its own Finale music, but this Curtain Call is the finale music for the entire show as a whole. The show is over, and this is your moment to connect with the audience, say thank you, and accept your well-earned applause.
This is really about triggering and reinforcing an emotional high, like a medal ceremony at the Olympics. The triumph of our hero! The music I use for my curtain call was the most difficult piece to find. I had a pretty specific idea about the feeling I wanted, and I went through hundreds and hundreds of songs hunting for it.
My curtain call music comes on strong, and stays loud as long as people are clapping, then the volume drops to half as people start to leave the theatre. The full song plays out before I transition to the closing house music.
Similar to the pre-show house music, this playlist plays softly as the audience is leaving the theatre. I would suggest it not be the same playlist as your pre-show, as the mood and feeling will likely be different after the experience of your show. It’s often less high-energy, and more uplifting.
The music must remain playing as long as there are patrons in the theatre, no matter how long they hang out.
If you’re starting from scratch, this may feel a bit overwhelming. My own use of music has grown over the course of many years to get where it is today. I didn’t start with all of this stuff in place from day one.
To get started, I think it’s most important to focus on getting started. Get your pre-show and walk-on music in place so you can hit the stage with an audience primed and ready for entertainment, then grow from there.