Good day, I'm fairly new to the sound design world and to this website so much help will be greatly appreciated. I was recently given the opportunity to score the music and design the soundscape for a theatrical play. The play would be depicting highly emotional material and I wanted to know what kind of devices I can employ to fully accent these emotional moments by making the audience (at least some of them) cry or at least have to try hard not to for times of 'extreme sadness' and 'extreme happiness'. I have roughly 6 months to work with. Thanks in advance.


Context is important but so is the directors style & approach, and this will surely inform how you support the narrative & dramatic moments because it is those (the writing, acting & narrative) that will make people cry, not the music or sound necessarily... Compare it with film: some directors spoon feed their audiences by sign posting every emotional moment with score before it happens, others leave the actors & writing to do their work & gently support the audience as they react. I'd suggest some of the most important considerations would be the shape of cues (& whether they should be there at all) - the entry point of a cue is crucial, its timing & how obvious or subtle it is. Of course there are a multitude of techniques available to a composer to express emotions - that is one of the most important tasks of a composer surely?


Depends on context.

But, the basics:

Strings can add a lot of emotion to a piece or score.

Recurring melodies for the protagonist which either degenerate or become less pronounced works well.

But, it helps to see the play or at least read the play first and take notes on what emotions the characters are exhibiting throughout it and augment this with your music.

I think it all comes down to story-telling. Figure out what you want to communicate and do that through the score.

Please let me know if I understood your question correctly - otherwise I'll try to think of more things to help you out.

  • Thank you for your response..you indeed understood the question correctly. I'll still appreciate anymore help your willing to give..like what devices you use for storytelling, I have some concepts I use but I'm a novice and don't want to spend time reinventing the wheel or making 'functional mistakes' as ill-fitted music may do far worse than having no music at all. thanks again
    – waters
    Sep 3 '11 at 4:53

I don't think there is like a rule to make an audience cry, or it would be sold at a very high price and kept secretly. :) Anyway, so this is very subjective, but I'd start with silence. A well affirmed long silence, then build up from there, very quietly, very slowly and subtle. Then go up, more and more, until maybe to a huge cresendo just before an explosion of the theme : but you don't bring this explosion, but just a few last notes, letting them hang there in the void.

You don't want to overrun the audience with loud and expressive music from the start, while they are not yet in the mood, so my suggestion is to start from nothing a build up. Good luck with it!


Well when I think about it, the saddest songs make me feel sad. Context context context is important with sound design I think.


One sound that always will be uncomforting is a baby's cry... But I mean you can't put that in a play if it isn't motivated by the plot. But it's interesting when you think about it, that sound will always evoke an intense emotional reaction to any human, because everyone can relate to it... Everyone won't cry but everyone will have some kind of emotional respone...


For a novice, this is quite the undertaking -- making people laugh, or be afraid, is easy -- crying is something that is incredibly subjective and even the greatest composers, I would bet, would say they cannot make someone in an audience cry 100% of the time.

Context is everything. This will largely be in the hands of the actors, and how they play it; as a composer and / or sound designer, your job is simply to support it. It's like Inception (the concept in the movie, not the movie themselves)... you can't make someone feel something, you have to convince them that the emotion you want them to feel is the emotion they should be feeling without pushing too hard so that they know you're actively manipulating them.

Research the crap out of this, and not just in an internet forum; find movies and music that make you cry, that make your friends and family cry, and LISTEN to them. Analyze them. Try to emulate them to the best of your ability.

And, before anything else -- and like Markus said -- start with silence.



This isn't a one size fits all solution, but whenever a character is near breaking or has broken, I find silence to be very powerful and unnerving. For me, silence increases the feeling of helplessness, as if even the soundtrack is too disturbed and upset to know what to do. Like shocked onlookers, the sound can only stare silently, mouth gaping.


I will second Miles B. on this one. Trying to use sound/music to 'guide' the audience into emotion often undermines the true emotion and smothers the moment.

In addition to silence though, very soft sounds or diagetic music (music that exists in the world on stage/screen) can have an equally powerful, suck-the-air-out-of-the-room effect in an emotional scene. It has the subconscious effect of reminding the audience that the world outside the character in focus continues as normal, even while/after the character suffers an emotional blow. It's a deceptively powerful technique to alienate the character from the rest of the "happy world".

If you want good examples of this, try watching the films Lost in Translation (use of background music) or The Hurt Locker (use of background sound effects and music). Or both ;).

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