How To Score A Fireworks Display

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Choreographing a fireworks display “is just like a ballet or a Broadway show,” explained Bill Schermerhorn, the creative director of Macy's 4th of July Fireworks show. “You think of the fireworks as the dancers. If you can dance to it you can shoot it.”

Not merely an afterthought tacked on by the producers of the television simulcast, music is a formative ingredient in some of the country’s biggest fireworks shows. In New York, where 40,000 fireworks will light up the night sky, it’s a process that starts almost a year in advance.

Have a Concept:

For the Macy’s fireworks over the Hudson River, the show starts with a theme. This year’s celebration of the 125th anniversary of Statue of Liberty follows “American Harmony” in 2010 and the 400th anniversary of the Hudson River in 2009. “You need variety over 25 minutes,” said Schermerhorn, who also oversees the Thanksgiving Day Parade. “Some pieces are patriotic anthems, some are more party pieces. To capture the full spectrum you need both.”

Select the Music:

At Macy’s, the music selection starts in August of the previous year. For six years, the company hired the New York Pops to record an evening-length score, a tradition that came to an end last year due to budgetary constraints. Now, Schermerhorn’s team makes generous use of iTunes. “The big patriotic favorites have to be in there," he said. “What’s fun is finding out who’s got the latest version.” This year, for instance, there’s a cover of “America the Beautiful” by James Taylor, just one of roughly 10 to 12 pieces in a standard show.

Give Classical Music its Due:

The amount of classical music varies annually but producers say it shows no signs of fizzing out. “Young people can’t afford our fireworks shows,” said Philip Butler, a spokesman for Grucci Fireworks, whose roster of national events includes a show over Great South Bay on Long Island on July 4th. “Older people have the money and they want classical.” Similarly, Schermerhorn said Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man remains a perennial favorite. And while this year’s Macy's soundtrack includes many pop artists, including Katy Petty, Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce, it will also include a Cincinnati Pops rendition of John Williams’s Liberty Fanfare.


Happy faces, flying V’s, the Golden Mile – fireworks choreographers have a deep catalog of effects that lend themselves to specific pieces of music. Butler of Grucci notes that lyrics can shape the choreography. “If we play Phil Collins 'Two Hearts' then we’ll display two hearts in the sky. If it’s 'Wish Upon a Star' we’ll have a star."

Computerize, Test, Sync, Test Again:

In February, once all of the music is finalized, Schermerhorn's team sends the 25-minute score to the designers who get to work on determining which shells will accompany each musical selection. The designers will send Schermerhorn a detailed rundown, indicating the number of seconds each burst of firepower will last. Everything is logged into a computer program that synchronizes the split-second fireworks cues with the music. To time the music properly, the choreographer must know how long it takes for each shell to open up after it's fired. For example, if he wanted two hearts to appear just when Phil Collins mentions hearts, he'd have to mark them on a form about five seconds before the words come in the song.

As Butler explained, while the effects are in the computer, the producers must also have a visual feel for how it will all play out. “The eye tells anybody how good the effect is.”

The Macy's take place live on the Hudson River in New York City or on NBC, July 4 at 9 pm. Tune in to WQXR for our own special July 4th soundtrack starting at 7 pm.