Can music tell a story?

Like other art forms, music reflects the reality we live in, playing, enriching and sometimes even changing it. From the mere imitation up to the bold creation of new worlds, everything is within its power, all the ways stay open if you know how it works and of course if you have a plan, where to go.

One of the most successful ways to exchange with the “outer world” is telling stories about it, stories that are able to throw a new light on it, to build up a tension between what we are used to and where we imagine we could go. In order to better understand this relation, it is important to clear up the distinction between the “what” and the “how” of the story that is told, pictured, danced, played or sung.

When a story is being told, the chain of events can be presented in very different ways – a chronological order, with jumps in time forth and back, incomplete, with time gaps, or even backwards. One can go deeper or less into details about the hero or the scenery of the story. The choice of words and the rhythm of the narrative can change the original report enormously. All these means of “deformation” of the narrated events build the set of artistic means of expression. It is them which make it possible to transform a simple report to a poem, story, or a novel.

The same is with painting. For example, when a bouquet of flowers is painted – the colors, the embedding into the space, the shadow tones, the clarity or blurredness of the contours give an artist a whole range of means into the hand, enabling him to change the original and to produce a personal vision of the object, which we call art. The author’s choice of expressive means, his preferred methods of transformation of the objects and the view on the object is usually referred to as technique.

When art (actually, all of them, including literature and music) is reflecting, alienating and shaping our life reality, in this very moment of perception it causes something in us, it touches us and transports into us a unique content that is not capable to exist in a different form and thus is not translatable. Still, it exists, this content, it lives within us, we take it home, carry it everywhere with us, sometimes throughout our whole lives.

The commonly held opinion is that music, in contrast to other arts, speaks “directly to the heart”, that music is capable to appeal to the emotions of the listener without any meditation. Of course, this does not mean that when “talking to the heart” music cannot use a highly sophisticated technique of “musical speech”, able to tell even complex stories and actually doing it constantly, not only in large forms such as symphonies or instrumental concertos but also in small piano pieces and even popular songs .

The fact that you cannot clearly and unequivocally express in words the content of the music does not mean music is not telling anything. Like any other art, music also has its motives, themes and stories. Its nature is, however, a very special one because music has emerged as a companion of the natural speech and both of them originated in the world of sounds. Music had to create its own domain, its own completely different set of expressive means in order to develop freely. What she created is very unique, and after all musical art can be called the most independent of all the arts.

The origins of music lose their traces in the thicket of millennia, and as there are no more societies in which music is on its very first stage of development, we cannot have a 100% true notion of its way. However, the multiple studies about the still existing pre-industrial societies seem to give strong indices that music was always connected to the spoken word.

If visual arts such as painting, sculpture, and dance started with an imitation of optically perceptible objects and actions during a syncretic ritual performance, music seems to raise from the tradition of “special speech”, when louder and longer sounds emphasized and enhanced the linguistic expression. Also stones, shells and hollow bones were used for this purpose, always embedded in a ritual, the later giving sense and meaning to the action.

Since time immemorial, the spoken word has been recited and sung, shouted and whispered. Over time some types of this “speech embellishment” have been used over and over again in the same situations, until finally the repetition made them so self-evident that they were able to carry their function without the spoken word.

Generations were needed to form stable content references but eventually it worked so that we can speak of emerging of musical signs, vocal and instrumental, all capable to carry messages on their own. It wasn’t an intended development, just a beautiful side effect and the result of millions of taste choices made in the emerging small societies. Each of them took a slightly different way giving birth to the inexhaustible variety of styles.

Becoming increasingly complex, one day sound patterns started to refer to themselves thus creating messages no more reducible to the spoken language. This is the birth of absolute music.

The original reference to concrete objects, situations or events remains stamped in the structure of the musical signs. There is always a structural similarity between at least some part of a musical sign and its “original”. This type of a sign that reflects the designated in their very own form, we call them iconic signs. In this sense, music is a construction of iconic signs that are connected to a larger whole according to a set of special combination laws, their “grammar”, different in every musical culture.

Under some circumstances, every element of musical structure can start transporting meaning, depending on the role, the author assigns to it in the story. Yet, also dealing with new, just created musical figures you can always be sure to find some structural similarity between the new musical sign and its reference!

There is also a part of the musical grammar that doesn’t carry any meaning, created just out of necessity to organize complex musical signs into units easy to handle. It only obeys to the taste of the creators, to their understanding of beauty. We call it aesthetical part of the music. It is this part of music that will always elude being matched to a certain meaning, remaining a beautiful “end in itself”, serving for nothing else than an esthetical pleasure.

Contrary to a natural language, music didn’t emerge purely for mutual understanding and a practical coordination of actions. It will always remain an enriching addition, an extra, not reducible to the language and yet not quite forgetting its meaningful origin.

Being “abstracted” from the natural language, musical meaning units are denser and more intense than what they were originally supposed to refer. When we talk about music we would always stay vague in our verbal descriptions, reducing the description to more or less abstract notions of “active” or “quite”, “light” or “heavy”, “hard” or “soft”, “happy” or “sad” and so on. We can invent sceneries fitting the music but they would never completely correspond to the musical meaning. In fact, they would drastically simplify the content.

Still, the iconic character of the musical signs lets us fix at least a part of the musical story and cover its most important features; it allows us to make an “abstraction” of the chain of events. If we accept the idea of music telling us a story, adorned, embellished and intensified, we will have to ask ourselves about the characters in these stories and the ways they are able to act.

The answer is quite simple – these characters or “heroes” are the musical figures, the smallest units of meaning in music. Often they are called motifs, just as in literature or painting! To avoid confusion, we are going to use the word motif only for figures with a clearly melodic content.

We can describe musical events in terms of figures that are exposed, combined and involved in the stories told us through music. For larger musical forms such as symphonies or sonatas a complex interaction of motifs is very typical, the so-called motif work. We call this kind of processing symphonism.

Musical figures can be very specific references but also very unclear, impenetrable, amorphous formations, not easily attributable to their originals. From onomatopoeia such as birdsong and water rippling, over fate knocking, signals and cross symbols, to complex abstract figurations – everything is possible, everything is accessible on the composer’s pallet, waiting to be used at the right place and time.

It lies in the hands of the music creator, what story to tell, what adventures his figures are going to experience. Will it be a musical poem in which, as it is usual in poetry, only one event is told, shown as many angles as possible, ambiguous and versatile? Or will it be a novel with many motifs fighting and meditating, dancing and melting together?

The most important and widespread forge of the musical content is a song. In use for millennia, it is also one of the most typical forms of musical poetry. In most cases it is dominated by one characteristical motive – the “hero” of the song, which is repeated over and over again with different but compatible lyrics. The tight connection to spoken word allows creation of new meaningful references between the word and the pure sound.

Whether it is a cradle song, a hymn, a love confession or a dance song, our perception of meanings and semantical references is practiced over and over again, enabling new forms of musical expression. Especially the art song (“Lied” in German) is predisposed to be more than a content forge. Sometimes the music runs in a parallel line to the lyrics, commenting and enriching or even contradicting it, provided, the used musical figures are familiar and understandable to us from the past experience or can be deduced and interpreted from the situation.

There is a big variety of musical figures, much more than words in a language. It is not always a melodic structure, it can also be a single chord, a certain rhythm or even a particularly placed or especially expressive tone, as for example a unison in the end of a piece with otherwise rather complex harmonies. It depends on the ensemble of motifs, on the distribution of their functions in the composition through space and time. The more complex the composition, the more figures may appear. Eventually, they would form real hierarchies with main and accompanying figures, leitmotifs and symbols.

In Germany of the 17th – 18th Century several treatises on music have tried to systemize musical figures, at least the most important ones. In particular, madrigal and opera were taken a closer look and cataloged. Here are just some of them:

anabasis (an upward movement) – joy, jubilation, or the resurrection

catabasis (an downward movement) – submission, pain, awe, or death

exclamatio (an upward jump larger than third) – horror, shock, or other strong emotion

fauxbourdon (consecutive parallel thirds or sixths) – false or sinful action

interrogatio (a short upward movement) – question

lamento (descending sequence between the basic and the fifth tone) – mourning

suspiratio (interruption by eighth or sixteenth pauses) – longing, sighing, groaning

sincopatio (rhythmic shift on unstressed time) – hitting, slaughter, forging, or hurting

tirata (gradually ascending or descending notes of the same note value) – violent events like lightning, thunder and many others

A detailed description of the musical figures is beyond the scope of this blog. In any case it is important to stay aware that musical figures are in a constant flux and many of them are forgotten and no longer perceived as such. We have to admit that when we hear for example a baroque opera, a renaissance musique de table, or a classical violin concerto, quite a big part of the musical story escapes our understanding.

Thanks to a certain continuity of the expressive means within the musical culture, we are still able to enjoy older compositions, often without actually understanding them in the same way they were meant by the author. What we do, is projecting new meaning into it, which we get used to during our education based on the romantic musical language. Its code is multiplied in the uncountable movies and made to a kind of standard, “understandable” to everybody.

In the 19th Century Richard Wagner made in his operas a unique attempt to duplicate the whole text of the libretto in its musical counterpart with the help of a complex system of the so-called leitmotifs – small musical figures denoting everything from a sword, person or fire, up to abstract concepts like duty or love. As the result, the musical content of his operas appears to be much more complex than the literary part. This attempt made history and influenced crucially the music afterwards.

Composers like Gustav Mahler were much inspired by the musical language of Wagner as they didn’t have to resort to a spoken word any more in order to tell their musical stories. Wagner facilitated and in some sense standardized the musical palette. The following generations could tell us whole symphonic novels using and expanding the newly forged connections between the music and the word. In these works the figures would act and meditate, love and fight, play and dance, ascend and die.

The ease and naturalness of our understanding of the musical language can give us the impression of music speaking directly to our emotions but it would be a very superficial view! In reality, we are able to let the complex musical contents into us just because of the long (mostly) unconscious period of the ear and mind training and yes, you can say “conditioning” throughout the time in the cradle and in kindergarten, in the church and in school, even in the cinema or in the disco, actually constantly, even listening to the radio in the kitchen.

A really new development came in the 20th Century with the emergence of movies. Now it is no longer predominantly the spoken word helping to forge new musical contents but also the moving images. When movie events are accompanied by music, it allows creating new stable relations, new meaningful combinations of sounds.

Very often movie music is based on the classical tradition and is even performed by a symphony orchestra. A good and quite well known example of a new content would be the so-called horror movie music with “screaming” high strings or a chase scene with typical patterns of low piano sounds. The range of expression is only bounded by the imagination and creativity of the composer!

Once the musical figures are selected and put into an outline of a story, the next stage of musical design allows us to perceive the figures as embedded into the musical space and time. Different viewing angles are possible; changes of a distance, depth or clarity make the experience even more vivid. In literature or painting these exciting expressive means are called perspective. We are going to talk about it in the next blog.


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