richard thomas music as chariot

Richard K. Thomas' Music As A Chariot

The latest book by Richard K. Thomas, professor of Visual and Performing Arts at Purdue University, with over 100 credits as a composer, sound designer, author, and educator, is titled "Music as a Chariot: The Evolutionary Origins of Theatre in Time, Sound, and Music," which offers a multidisciplinary perspective whose primary proposition is that theatre is a type of music.

Understanding how music enables the theatre experience helps to shape our entire approach to the performing arts. Beginning with a discussion on the origin and nature of time, the author takes the reader on an evolutionary journey to discover how music, language, and mimesis co-evolved, eventually coming together to produce the complex way we experience theatre. The book integrates the evolutionary neuroscience of the human brain into this journey, offering practical implications and applications for the auditory expression of this concept—namely the fundamental techniques artists use to create sound scores for theatre.

With contributions from directors, playwrights, actors and designers, Music as a Chariot explores the use of music to carry ideas into the human soul—a concept that extends beyond the theatrical to include film, video gaming, dance, or anywhere art is manipulated in time. Thomas wrote the first draft of the book while in grad school (1976-1980) and notes, "I’ve been studying the subject ever since, and honing the techniques I describe in the book. It’s a book about how we immerse our audience in the worlds of the play and the journeys of the characters in the play," he points out. "Sound designers should read the book not as an end, but as a stimulant for their own explorations." 

Here is a short excerpt from the book, which is available at

"Music is primal; it’s a biological component of human physiology and psychology. Music is so fundamental to our being that we take it for granted that we understand it. Everybody can listen to music and be moved by it. You don’t have to have any training whatsoever. That is quite different from language. An intuitive approach also applies to making music. Many of the world’s most beloved musicians have no formal training whatsoever. They can’t read a note of music; they have no formal training on their instrument. They play from the heart, from deeply ingrained intuition, allowing their emotions to flow through their instrument. Ask them how or why they play notes in a certain way, and they will be at a loss to explain. It just happens. 

A similar situation exists with directors and actors and other artists expressing themselves through music. For example, a director may say to an actor, “If you put a beat right there in that line, you’ll get the laugh you’re looking for,” and sure enough, the actor puts the beat there—just a little pause, just a little cadence, a musical thing right there, and there’s a laugh. The actor turns to the director, and says “how did you know that?” The director responds, “I don’t know,” or “I’ve been doing this for 40 years.” But ask the director why, why musically is that right? They can’t tell you. It’s intuitive. Music is very intuitive. It’s one of the arguments about music being biologically and evolutionarily driven. It’s really intuitive. All cultures have it. All time periods have it.

For many, this intuition is enough. For the rest of us, there will come a time when we need to effectively communicate, and we will want to have a command over our tools in order to connect with our audience effectively. Nearly everyone can communicate to a certain degree using their native language. However, the best communicators are those that also study their language, who understand and learn the nuance of meaning, syntax, phrasing, efficiency and precision. It is similar with music. In every artist’s life, there are hills and valleys; hills of magnificent inspiration that come from who knows where, and valleys where we seemingly don’t have a creative idea to offer. We don’t need to understand how music works in theatre to get us through the hills, we need to understand how music works to provide a craft that leads us to success in the valleys. In this book, I will argue that the art we need to understand, that will lead us to better craft, lies in understanding music holistically. The more we understand how music works, the more we will understand how theatre works, because theatre is a type of music."

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