Lighting and stage sets

three spotlights shining slightly overlapping beams of light down against a dark backdrop

© Steidl

Lighting and stage sets have become an integral part of popular music performance strategies. As with other visual aspects of popular music, different genres have a number of different conventions, ranging from minimally lit, stripped down stage settings to elaborate and highly expensive set-ups that utilise state-of-the-art technology, complicated lighting routines and specially made films and animation.

On a pragmatic level staging is used to echo specific elements of a performance. Lighting for instance is used to accentuate mood and emotion (soft coloured flood lighting or a spot for slow or intimate song, for example), dynamics and tempo (through movement or colour changes in time with the music) or to signify particular episodic sections of a performance such as the entrance of an artist or a finale. Specific stage sets, backdrops and props can also be used to brand a particular tour or to set up a thematic continuity within a performance.

For the first half of the 20th century the staging of popular music in terms of lighting tended to follow the conventions of the genre, and - equally important - to be subject to what was on offer in a particular venue. Theatres had installed permanent lighting systems that were used for many types of performance. These installations changed with the introduction of new technologies and the 1930s onwards saw numerous innovations in theatre lighting. Lighting control consoles could use dimmers to control the intensity (and in some instances colour) of the lights. A notable example was the Strand Light Console, a specially made organ console that had the ability to remotely control an elaborate lighting set-up. The unit had 216 dimmers and four-colour remote filter change for a large number of stage lights and was installed in various West End theatres such as the Drury Lane Theatre and the Coliseum. Most popular music performance tours took place utilising the lighting that was pre-installed in theatres and it wasn't until the advent of large-scale rock shows that bands began to take elaborate lighting and stage dressings with them on tour.