Game Library: “Song Cue”

If you play musical improv scenes it’s likely that some version of this game is already in your repertoire. If it’s not, then it certainly should be! Song Cue is a classic “called” short-form game that challenges improvisers to craft originally titled numbers on the spot. For some general Caller tips, be sure to check out my earlier entry here.

The Basics

Players construct a scene based on an audience suggestion. As the action unfolds, a caller can identify a previously spoken line of dialogue by saying, “Freeze, that sounds like a song…” and then repeating the pertinent portion of the phrase. Players construct an improvised song inspired by (and typically featuring) the nominated title. At the conclusion of the song, players return to spoken dialogue until a new song title is “recognized” and called.


The scene is inspired by “canoe”. Two players begin the scene gently rowing on a river as the lights come up.

Player A: “You truly picked the perfect day for this. It couldn’t be more stunning out here.”

Player B: “You’ve just be so stressed sweetie, and you always get so recharged in nature…”

Player A: (laughing with self-recognition) “You know me so well!”

Player B: (looking in the canoe) “Oh, I thought I packed some water. I can’t seem to find it…”

Player A: (lovingly) “No worries. Everything I need is in this canoe.”

Caller: “Freeze, that sounds like a lovely country ballad: ‘Everything I need is in this canoe…”

The improvising musician provides some appropriate country music and Player A begins to sing...

Player A:

“The scenery is beautiful, that’s clearly true
But I’ve no interest in this astounding view
‘Cause you always seem to know just what to do
That’s why everything I need is in this canoe…”

The Focus

While the caller device certainly adds some challenge to the game (and perhaps a little well-intentioned “torture”) I’ve found that Song Cue is a wonderfully resilient frame that can support a wide range of styles and energies: from nuanced relationship scenes all the way to whimsical or fanciful improv romps. The game will struggle without crafting successful songs that enrich the themes and subtext so this is certainly a skill set to polish and bring to the format.

Traps and Tips

1.) Some game-specific caller advice. Often the best song titles are those that have spontaneously slipped out (rather than those players have more deliberately or knowingly pitched) so look for these as the scene evolves. While a meandering line of dialogue as a title will certainly get a laugh, improvisers can struggle to remember and successfully use these more voluminous suggestions: it’s more than appropriate to edit a longer line of dialogue into its essential core. Some venues prefer to just provide the unadorned title to allow the musician and singer the freedom to find the style or mood, but I quite like adding a little layover to help give the songs some variety. If you opt for this approach, be sure to name your offered style as early in the call as possible to give the musician an opportunity to adjust accordingly, and it’s wise to have a sense of what styles may be beyond your technical parameters (heavy metal without a guitar, for example, can be extremely challenging on a keyboard or piano). Regardless of which approach to style you utilize, be mindful of facilitating different moods and energies in your calls and sharing the opportunities amongst the various team members.

2.) Some song mechanics thoughts. The ins and outs of the songs offer unique challenges and opportunities. The caller should endeavor to grab song titles of interest confidently and quickly so as not to needless stall or interrupt the story arc. Almost without exception the scene benefits from three musical moments that represent the beginning, middle and end or climax of the scene, the last of which is typically a show-stopping or uptempo number. Occasionally it can be dynamic to throw in a fourth quick hit that might feature a particularly silly line or if players are clearly struggling to land a song and would appreciate a fast edit. It’s a good rule of thumb to assume that the interrupted speaker who provided the title will serve as the default singer (at least initially) and it can be helpful for the caller to also distinctly mark musical numbers as solos, duet or ensemble pieces especially if your company tends to fall into patterns of performance. I like making sure at least one number is a solo or ballad just to provide some variety. In terms of song endings, these can be determined by the singing players in conjunction with the musician, or you can deploy the caller to offer buttons by ringing a bell and/or noting “…and back to the scene.” Often a verse with a chorus feels sufficient unless everyone is on a roll, but it can be helpful to utilize the caller as a fail safe measure.

3.) Some transition guidance. When the caller announces the “Freeze” to insert the song title suggestion, I’d generally recommend onstage players assume a soft freeze, gently continuing activity as they closely listen to the new information. There will often be a few “empty” moments as the musician prepares based on the potentials of the title and starts the musical introduction. Characters can use these moments to then re-start the scene, finish any interrupted dialogue or pre-song banter, and robustly position the designated singer to take the focus. There are several approaches you can take once the songs are up and running. Unlike some other musical games where non-singing characters remain frozen as singers croon their subtext or unheard thoughts, the scenic action typically continues in Song Cue. Depending on the feel of the scene or style of the song, action can retain a “slice of life” or realistic feel, or you can assume a more “theatrical” energy with slightly largely than life movement or choreography. It can prove helpful not to preset this choice but rather to allow the given circumstances to dictate the approach for this particular scene.

4.) Some song content musings. The musical moments of this scene will invariably create energy spikes in the scene, especially if everyone is working together well to craft dynamic transitions and launches. The resulting songs can certainly exist on charm alone, but I’d also encourage using these moments to deepen and enrich the content of the scene. It’s a mistake or wasted opportunity to let the musical moments become filler or inconsequential pauses in the action. You can use the songs to extend: in the example above, we have a chance for Player A to flesh out their views on the relationship, providing backstory, subtext or emotional veracity. They could also paint more details about the greater environment on the river or add nuance and particulars to the activity of canoeing. Similarly, you can use the songs to advance: perhaps Player A’s song builds to a proposal (welcome or not), or their level of distraction causes the canoe to hit a rock and breach, or the couple finds themselves lost in an aquatic labyrinth. When the songs are used as critical elements of the storytelling (as they would be in a musical) rather than accompanied departures of little consequence, the game takes on a whole other level of finesse. Songs are also a great time to drop a CAD.

In Performance

Musical games played well (and frankly not-so-well) are clearly audience pleasers so it’s definitely worth the time to build up the requisite skills that enable this type of scene. Remember to balance the storyline and game components, allowing the scene to develop before potentially overwhelming it with calls. It can be a trap to expect the songs to do all the heavy lifting of the scene especially if the unsung dialogue isn’t providing rich and connected context and justifications.

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Caller

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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