I can’t count the number of times a student has come into a lesson and been beyond confused as to what to prepare for their audition based on what it says in the breakdown or the information they have received from their agents. Most of the time the confusion is not the fault of casting or the actor. It’s simply that over the years we’ve evolved several different ways to describe a style of music and have yet to agree on certain definitions. I think it is safe to say that everyone has a common goal when it comes to the audition. The casting director would love for each actor to come in with a piece of material that is appropriate for the role they are auditioning for and that shows the actor off at their best. The actor has the same interest going into the room. In the interest of getting us all closer to that goal, I’ve offered some definitions that I’m hoping will help to clarify some key phrases and begin to distinguish certain categories. This is by no means a complete list –it is simply a conversation starter. Please feel free to share your thoughts as some definitions will certainly need to be looked at further. The list you see is taken directly from current breakdowns and auditions received from students. If there are additional definitions you would like for me to explore please leave comments below and I will be happy to delve further.
Ballad: a song that utilizes a slower tempo. Generally a ballad will contain sustained notes and emphasize longer musical lines and phrasing.
Blues: Among the formal, identifying musical traits of the blues are the familiar “blue notes,” a three-line AAB verse form, and a characteristic use of the familiar blues chord progression. Examples: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith,Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King.
Brief Song: Around 32 bars or 60-90 seconds of music.
Classic Musical Theatre: Refer to Musical Theatre Standard. NOTE: this does not necessarily refer to a “Classical” style of singing.
Contemporary: a general term for a song that would be heard on the radio today. Not Musical Theatre.
Contemporary Musical Theatre: A song from the musical theatre repertoire written within the past 10-20 years that embraces a more contemporary style of writing. This could also include a stand alone song or a song from a musical that has yet to be produced. Examples: Jason Robert Brown, Michael John La Chuisa, Stephen Schwartz, Joe Iconis, Kerrigan-Lowdermilk, Pasek & Paul , Ahrens & Flaherty,Jonathan Larson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Adam Gwon , Andrew Lippa, William Finn
Contemporary Rock: Modern rock, a rock format commonly found on commercial radio; the format consists primarily of the alternative rock genre. Generally beginning with late 1970s punk but referring especially to alternative rock music since the 1980s, the phrase “modern rock” is used to differentiate the music from classic rock, which focuses on music recorded in the 1960s through the early 1980s. Examples: Nirvana, Green Day, Linkin Park, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Avril Lavigne, Florence + The Machine, No Doubt, Alanis Morissette, Coldplay, Green Day
Country: Ranges from old-time string-band music to “Western swing” from blues decorated with yodels to smooth, pop-influenced vocals. The basic core formula, which consists of a straightforward chord progression, a resonating chorus or bridge, and a memorable story, will most often be the foundation of country music songs. Examples: Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Garth Brooks,Kenny Rogers,Lyle Lovett, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash
Country-Rock: A subgenre of country music, formed from the fusion of rock with country. The term is generally used to refer to the wave of rock musicians who began to record country-flavored records in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Examples: Emmylou Harris, The Eagles, Dixie Chicks, Carrie Underwood, John Mellencamp, Jim Croce, Keith Urban, Taylor Hicks, Taylor Swift
Gospel: A form of impassioned rhythmic spiritual music rooted in the solo and responsive church singing in the American South, central to the development of rhythm and blues and of soul music. ( We probably want to hear you wail.) Examples: I’m Amazed, I Never Lost My Praise, God Is Here, We’ve Come This Far By Faith, I Don’t Mind Waiting, Great Is Your Mercy, Wonderful Change
Musical Theatre Standard: Generally this will refer to a song from the musical theatre repertoire from 1980 or earlier. The song will embrace the traditional stylings of Musical Theatre and can either show off a legit vocal quality or a belt. PLEASE NOTE: This is different from a STANDARD ( See definition below) Examples : Styne, Kern, Gershwin, Strouse, Porter, Lerner & Loewe, Jones & Schmidt, Rodgers & Hartt, Rodgers & Hammerstein
Pop: Pop music has been and continues to be a melting pot that borrows and assimilates elements and ideas from a wide range of musical styles. Rock, r&b, country, disco, punk, and hip hop are all specific genres of music that have influenced and been incorporated into pop music in various ways over the past 5 decades. Pure pop typically consists of relatively brief songs with vocals that have a very strong catchy chorus, or hook. Examples: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Beyonce, Pink, John Legend, Justin Timberlake, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson
Rock: Generally referring to music from the “golden age” of rock or “classic rock”. A genre of popular music that o developed into a range of different styles in the 1960s and later, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States. Examples: Aerosmith, Led Zepplin, Styx, Queen, The Who, Meatloaf, Guns n’ Roses, Deep Purple, U2, Whitesnake
R & B: Rhythm & Blues. A kind of pop music with a soulful vocal style featuring much improvisation. Characterized by a strong backbeat and repeated variations on syncopated instrumental phrases. Examples: The Four Tops, The Drifters,Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Barry White, Lou Rawls, Ben E. King, D’Angelo Showing Range: This is a request to show off some of the strengths of your vocal range and what you would be comfortable singing 8 shows a week. The material need not show every possible note you can sing, but should give a sense of whether you are a rocking’ high belter, a fantastic rich mezzo, a lovely soprano with a solid floaty C, a soaring tenor or a warm rich bass. Use this request to show off the best parts of your instrument.
Soul: A combination of R&B and gospel and began in the late 1950s in the United States. Soul differentiates from R&B due to Soul music’s use of gospel-music devices, its greater emphasis on vocalists and its merging of religious and secular themes. Examples: James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Patti LaBelle
Standard: A song of established popularity. Standards can fall into several categories such as Jazz Standard, Blues Standard, Pop Standard, Musical Theatre Standards or Songs from The Great American Song Book.
Traditional Musical Theatre: Refer to Musical Theatre Standard.
Up-tempo: a song utilizing a quicker tempo.
16 bars: A cut of your song consisting of approximately 16 measures of music. Ideally, this cut will have a beginning a middle and and end and will give a sense of your vocal strengths and ability to connect to a lyric. The measures do not need to be consecutive, but do need to be clearly marked and make musical sense. In some cases, your 16 bar cut could be the equivalent of 30 seconds of music. You can generally have a cut that is slightly longer than 16 bars (18-24) but should be prepared to sing EXACTLY 16 if asked. 32 bars: 32 measures of music. Generally the equivalent of Verse / Chorus / Verse of a song or around 60 seconds of music. As in the 16 bar cut , your 32 bars should have a beginning a middle and end and should give a sense of your vocal strengths and ability to connect to a lyric. You may generally have a cut that is slightly longer than 32 bars but should be prepared to sing EXACTLY 32 bars if asked.
You may notice that there are several categories that can easily cross over and be misinterpreted. The more precise the breakdown information can be the more likely actors will show up with appropriate material. At the same time, it’s important that the actor make an informed decision going into the room. Be aware of who the composers of the show you are auditioning for are and what their writing style is. Make an educated and informed decision on what to sing based on what you know about the show and the information that has been provided to you in the breakdown.
Case Study: I recently had someone come in for a Beauty and the Beast audition. She wanted to be considered for Belle. When I asked her what she was thinking of singing she said “Somebody, Somewhere”. I was confused. She said she was going to sing something more contemporary and belty/mixy but the breakdown had said “Classic Musical Theatre”. I went on to explain to her that in that case, they were asking people to sing a musical theatre song as opposed to a pop or rock song. While the breakdown was a bit misleading, it’s also an important lesson in using your judgement to go into the room with something that you feel represents you best for the role you are auditioning for.
As musical theatre continues to evolve to embrace a full spectrum of musical styles, it’s important for us to continue to evolve our understanding of these styles along with it. Continue to explore musical styles that you may not be familiar with and really do the research when you are going in for a role so that you can be confident that you are going into the room with something that will represent you well and give sense of the style that is needed. If something is unclear in the breakdown, see if you can get further information either by asking or looking for other clues from the show— the character, the composers, who else is working on the project and so forth. At the very least you will have an expanded knowledge as a musician and performer and know that you’ve done the work.
I encourage you to comment and continue this conversation— I’m certain there are several descriptions I have not hit upon and would be happy to explore them further. Thanks!