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How can we use music to tell a story?
Learn the history of the art of musical storytelling.
Here are 7 handy tips for capturing audiences with sonic narratives.
Music, as with any creative art form, has the potential to transport its audience to other worlds and introduce them to different perspectives.
Musical storytelling is something that has been passed down for millennia. From indigenous Australians maintaining intergenerational songlines, through to modern film soundtracks and even albums that aren’t tied to any visual medium (think good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar).
Unlike the original songlines that relied heavily on lyrical content to convey the stories, the emergence of instrumental (or more correctly, nonverbal) storytelling is notable onwards from the tone poem movement in the 19th century.
Now, with the incredibly diverse compositional and tonal palette available via modern DAWs, storytelling in music and audio has never been more compelling.
Storytelling In Music: Historical Context
So, as we already know, musical storytelling isn’t a new concept. In modern western music, we saw the emergence of this as an art form through classical composers like the German Carl Loewe, who is credited for coining the term Tondichtung (tone poem) in 1825.
However, Ballet was already expressing musical storytelling since the 15th century, as was Opera around the same time. A work that I often reference for my students is Greig’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King (1875) which is a seminal piece in the realm of musical storytelling.
Storytelling in music through voice made up a large part of our western musical history with cultural observers like Bob Dylan. Social commentary through the years of the 20th century became one of the most powerful storytelling pathways in music.
Ever since then, it has been a staple of musical expression through to modern pop. Storytelling in music engages audiences by linking them to their own imaginations and stories. To help make this happen, the composer draws on their own experiences and ideas, and if successful this will strike a chord with the audience.
The Importance Of Storytelling In Music
Storytelling is a dynamic and interactive exploration of a narrative. Not only does it convey the basic elements of the story, but it must also involve the audience in imagination and progression to a final point. And the most powerful stories inspire an experience in the listener that elicits further contemplation long after the story has finished.
To do this, one must create an emotional response that embeds itself into the memory of its audience. Emotional responses are memorable!! So make them count.
All good stories have progression, they have obstacles raising in complexity and difficulty until the climax, followed by a moment for integration.
How To Capture Listeners With The Art Of Storytelling
Effective and potent storytelling is not just simply conveying one’s own perspective of a story, it requires the composer to step inside the mind (and ears) of their intended audience. This implies a level of psychology on the composer’s part, of how the listener can integrate and absorb the journey.
With that said, let’s jump into my list of 7 effective tips to convey narrative through song.
1. The Plot: Vision/Intention
The vision and intention of the story should be your first step here. As with any creative writing, start by knowing the characters, their personalities, and their traits. This is imperative in the process of creating realistic and relatable characters, even if they are steeped in absurdity.
Is it some pompous Lord presiding over their subjects, is it an alien in a sea of celestial bodies, or is it an elephant wearing a pink tutu riding a unicycle across a high-wire over a chasm filled with irritated crocodiles?
As the composer, we must understand why the elephant intends to risk its life like this, and in this case, this is the relatable part. Otherwise, we are attempting to tell an opaque and intangible story. Even David Lynch has stories that are filled with human emotion, no matter how abstract they get.
Furthermore, a life lesson or “moral of the story” can really add power and resonate with the audience years later.
2. Create The Environment: Set and Setting
As with the potential hero in our story, the tutu touting elephant, how could I sonically re-create this setting? What environmental aspects convey tension and release? I may hear the wind howling, the high-wire whistling under tension, crocodiles snapping angrily with delays and reverb creating a distant cacophony.
We might hear heavy breathing and rapid heart beating as we step into the first-person perspective…or first-elephant as the case may be.
Also ask yourself what time of day it is and what animals would I hear in this geographical location at this particular time? Include field recordings and foley sounds that match these organic elements.
After considering this, now it’s time to ask “what sonic colors am I going to explore?”…
3. Characters: Instrumentation/Sound Selection
Sound and instrument selection is extremely important in directing listener attention.
One can think of these as the characters in the story. The personality of a piccolo is quite distinct from that of a heavy 808. So which elements are the protagonist and which are the supporting characters?
There also needs to be a consistency of these characters. So if I choose to represent the elephant with a piccolo, that needs to be present throughout the story. Or it could possibly be the melodic motif that stays consistent, whilst the instrumentation evolves with the character development.
Which instruments and sounds come forward in your imagination when internally picturing this scene and story? How do they interact and contrast to tell a story?
The use of musical riffs and phrases to drive a narrative is a classic technique in scores for film, television, and theatre. With this, we arrive at the next step…
Scales are important tools, so much so that there are apps like Scaler 2 out there designed to help musicians use them more effectively. Scaler determines what key and scale you’re in and suggest chords that match your music.
As in movie soundtracks, melodic motif development maintains a level of continuity across the composition. Using the same basic melodic motif across various instrumentation enables the listener to maintain a connection with the story. This can also be achieved with very particular instrumentation or with purely rhythmic motifs (i.e. not melodic ones).
If, for example, my story is to be an epic journey across multiple compositions, the motif development needs to evolve with the story. The original motif requires a basic yet succinct idea that can be explored deeper and moved across instrumentation.
Hans Zimmer has an amazing Masterclass series that illuminates his thoughts on film scoring and the essential nature of motif development to convey narrative. Check out our full review here.
I also suggest looking at how the legendary John Williams composes his motifs.
5. Tension And Release
As Rick Beato says, dissonance is emotion. Ultimately, it is emotion that the most powerful composers and storytellers endeavor to elicit in their audiences. Tension and release is the storyteller’s best compositional friend.
It is what keeps audiences on the edge of their seats, and what makes them want to snuggle in with their loved ones when it is released. Tension can be achieved through harmonic vs melodic interplay, and it can also be induced rhythmically.
If I want to add rhythmic tension to my story by making it feel like the elephant is stumbling forward, I could remove a beat. For example, writing in 4/4, I could insert a bar of 3/4. Or conversely, if I wanted to make him stumble backward, I could insert a bar of 5/4.
Check out these 2 videos explaining this technique of removing and adding a beat:
6. Composition and Structure
Good stories are rarely repetitive, they need to flow.
So too does the composition and structure in my music. In non-verbal musical stories, the use of the traditional song structure of verses, choruses, and bridge, are just not going to take people where I want them to go.
For the content of my music story it is important that the order of my piece needs to follow my character’s journey and support the characters in their world. Think of introduction, conflict, climax, and resolution, or in compositional structure terms like A/B/C/D.
7. Compositional/Release Notes
Storytelling without lyrics requires that the audience is led to an understanding with music alone. They need to be forewarned of the story, so they can follow the adventure and the composer can direct their attention.
This is a fine balance between being over explicit (which takes away from the audience’s imaginative faculties and reduces emotional impact), and obscure (which means taking the listener on a pre-ordained journey where intention and direction are lost in the imaginative faculties).
In conclusion, I hope these storytelling tips have sparked something inside of you. Remember, you don’t need to be writing music for anything specific.
In fact, I encourage you to come up with your own imaginary stories and practice writing for these instead. Think of a narrative, and write a piece of music that takes place within this world. Find who the people are within this narrative and give them a voice with music!
It’s impossible not to learn something this way, and if you keep at it you’ll develop a valuable skill that you can build a career out of.
You’ll find plenty of other great songwriting tips in these articles: