Transparency, Context and Meaning – About making music for stage performances

Niklas Rydén presents a list of thoughts and questions that are worthy to consider in connection with creating music for dance performances.

What we actually want to tell:

  • Content, meaning. What do we (choreographers, composers, etc) want to say, to express.
  • We must, in some sense, have a common goal. Work in the same direction, together.
  • The musical part of the expression must always take into account the whole expression, how it all works together.
  • As I see it: This means that music for stage performances needs to be communicative, or at least those involved must be very aware of how it actually communicates.


  • Composers are driven by a need to express their own skill and ego in the piece or to defend the right of the music to be an independent entity. Which, in my opinion, is a misunderstanding of the scenic reality, where the various expressions cooperate to create a total - a shared or unified language?


  • How meaning in expressions come to exist only by their contextual appearance.
  • In the small perspective: Melody tones, intervals, harmonies, rhythms, and timbre always exist in relation to each other.
  • Between different parts of a composition.
  • Between different languages, expressions of a performance.
  • By how the performance is presented to an audience.
  • By where it is presented, in which art and societal context it is played.


  • Music as a dramatic means, a dramaturgic tool.
  • To maintain energy, to hold interest, to keep the audience present.
  • The big form, the overall form. Ways of thinking.
  • The composer actually becomes a kind of a director.

Music & Room, Sound & Space

  • About the inner room of music. The room/time phenomena.
  • About how music influences the scenic (and other) rooms/spaces. Open/close.
  • How rhythmic music creates rooms. (More body, more movement.)
  • How more phrase-based or ambient music create rooms.
  • About the sound’s own spatiality.

Genre Music

  • How genre music like hip hop, salsa, etc carry so much meaning and associations, so much party, dance etc. This can be used very cleverly, but there is also a risk involved.
  • The striving, the aim to create a personal sound, which becomes the sound of this unique performance.
  • The need to understand the different functions of different kinds of music.
  • Problems: How genre music aiming to fit in with to current hit-list music risks drowning in its own banal, simple expression of teenage love. (Like some djtechno used in dance performances).

Transparency, translucency

  • The music must be transparent, must be able to give room for other expressions. To make them strong, not drown them.
  • Think about simpleness/complexity. Is it possible to do it simpler?
  • Look at the dance/play: Does it work or not? Change music to help. Most often: A question of cleaning, simplifying, diminishing – to make it stronger.
  • Is transparency actually a question of the amount of structured musical events over time?


  • The desire of the composer to show their skills and abilities in complex music.
  • To follow or to go in the opposite direction. To break away.
  • The risk of being overly explicit. To say something in one single way, and far too often.
  • Emotions can be pretentious and even corny, if over-explicitly expressed.
  • As is it with movement. Degrees of movement. Sometimes slow moves are best to more aggressive music. And the opposite.
  • The same thing goes for strong/quiet, high/low, vivid/still, fast/slow etc.


  • There are no cut-and-dried rules. You have to figure out what works.

Niklas Rydén, September 2009

Niklas Rydén is a composer and the Artistic Director at the venue Atalante in Göteborg, Sweden. Working with music for dance venues for almost 30 years has made him one of Sweden’s most experienced artists in this field. Since 2006, Rydén is also the leader of Newopera CO and he has written two full-length operas for this experimental opera ensemble.