Music has this wonderful ability to mean multiple things to a myriad of different people all at the same time. It can be an affirmation of convictions or experiences, a form of emotional escapism, or a muse to inspire. It accomplishes this through a wide range of complicated psychological principles as well as preying on subconscious listener expectations, but the area that seems to be the most salient from what I gather – and the one I wish to focus on today – is that of how narrative plays into this.
So what exactly is narrative, then?
McCabe and Peterson, in their book Developing Narrative Structure (1991), by some fashion boil down narrative to a sequence of events that describe an experience, be it literal or fictitious. Most definitions you will come across elude to much the same, with divulgences into the fields of speech, literature, oral history, and theater, alongside many other studies and mediums. Simply put, a narrative is a story. And if there is one thing the human brain is innately wired to do (and do exceptionally well), it is to seek out and understand stories.
It goes without saying that you can apply this principle to the world of music without stretching the idea as if it were off-brand laffy taffy. As I’m sure you might have guessed, this goes beyond simple lyrical devices and textual framing. Fred Everett Maus, in his article Music as Narrative (1991), manages a pretty comprehensive dissection of how instrumental music can be used as narrative, and Richard Walsh digs a bit deeper into the psychology of the topic in his study The Common Basis of Narrative and Music (2011) – if you want a something a bit more analytical.
In this way, narrative can be as small as two temporally ordered notes or as grand as any form of polylogy (yes, that is a word). At its most efficacious, music will blend the lyrical context with a diegetic musical counterpart to conceptually elevate the listener’s experience. You could then argue that narrative, in some way, becomes ingrained in the identity of music, both as it is created and consumed; two equally valid interpretations of an experience coming from the creator and the recipient.
But how do composers and musicians successfully navigate narrative when writing more contemporary music, and what is the listener’s role in this in aural monologue? Strap in and let’s find out together on this lengthy meander through musical meaning-making!
Approaches to exploring narrative
There are a handful of umbrella approaches that artists and composers use to accomplish a more effective narrative in their music. Each of these have the own individual techniques, in addition to more broad methods we will discuss below.
The self-contained narrative is a microcosm of aural storytelling, one that can span a single track or act as a single movement within a song. The former is, in essence, the basis of nearly all music. A single referential piece with a beginning, middle, and end, all in one tidy package. In the context of today’s conversation, this approach nears vapidity. The more interesting of the two here is within a movement, such as how a tonal shift from a major to a minor scale can convey a sense of loss or tension. These miniature stories can also be crafted using the negative space in music.
The thematic narrative is one that ties together a number of seemingly disparate elements with a unifying template of tone or theming. This is how Steven Wilson crafted a cohesive piece with The Raven That Refused to Sing, or how Caligula’s Horse manage to tie four smaller vignettes together in their most recent release, In Contact (I’m dating this article by phrasing it like that). In both cases, the self-contained stories are loosely tied together by a theme, supernatural stories and the personal struggles of artists respectively.
The overt narrative is the all-encompassing long-form story. The scale tips from multi-part suite a la “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” and “2112“, to the full concepts such as Thick as a Brick or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and eventually to the expansive epics akin to The Dear Hunter or Coheed and Cambria‘s The Amory Wars. These all have distinct characters that follow arcs, in which each song acts as its own larger movement in addition to the micro-movements within the tracks themselves. Most references to narrative in music refer to these, as they are the clearest example of melding music and story.
Styles of conveying narrative
As mentioned earlier, many of the techniques used for the umbrella approaches above are transferable across the spectrum. The division for which is used and when depends more on the style the music is going for than the scope of the narrative. This division seems to be primarily split into two categories: emotive and story.
The emotive style more heavily leans on tonal shifts and phrasing in music to do the heavy lifting. In discussing The Optimist, Anathema guitarist Danny Cavanagh stated: ‘It’s like a story, it’s like a narrative, but not in the traditional sense…we don’t say exactly who this person at all and we don’t say what exactly happens to him or where he ends up or what he does in the end. That’s really up to the listener to decide that for themselves.‘ On the whole, you could describe much of Anathema’s music as more emotive than internally consistent, narratively speaking. The music swells and cedes, the instrumentation flutters in when needed to hit that intended feeling and then passes, all in the name of imbuing the listener with a sense of agency in interpretation.
In a more ‘of course that’s the case’ sense, barring any supplemental material such as artwork or connections to other media, instrumental music is essentially wholly dependant on this style. Fred Everett Maus (1991), as mentioned before, covers this topic fairly comprehensively, but we could easily apply this to modern instrumental – or heavily instrumental – music as well. Post-rock uses slow builds and catharsis to engage, jazz conscripts a commanding use of spontaneity to stimulate, and doom decimates by tonally consuming the soundstage. There is a whole field of study that could tell you why one progression of notes elicits a specific emotional reaction versus another, so I will leave you with this link if you want to dig in deeper.
The story-based style is far more reliant of the written lyrics, though the application of the music in this context can be far more complex depending on the intended result. The most prominent technique is how the use of language is supplemented by the accompaniment. Think the ambient loneliness Riverside conveys as it builds in “Escalator Shrine” alongside lyrics that suggest a faltering conviction while immersed in a post-apocalyptic, ironically-yet-unironically religious context. Consider the unbound piano laden whimsy of “Streams” that Haken use when introducing the mermaid figure, a harsh contrast to some of the events this character would endure. The music relies on the emotive principals from the previous style to create new meanings when paired with text.
Techniques for presenting narrative
Can you recall seeing a movie in which the events on screen were sharply juxtaposed to the score of the film? Many filmmakers will utilize this contrast to play upbeat, happy music when there is violence being portrayed. In the same vein, we can apply this technique to both impress the significance of an event or provide a bit of humor. Coheed and Cambria turn the intent of murder into a lullaby in “Always and Never”, while The Darkness’s unnervingly foreboding atmosphere in “Bald” is used for purely comedic effect. Both are more memorable as a result of this contrast than they would have been otherwise.
Another often-used technique that has a number of implementations is the use of point of view. Rael from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Pink from The Wall are the epitome of an unreliable narrator, in which the narrative of the music is focused on their unique experience more than on the true events of what might have happened. Furthermore, shifting between character perspectives is most effectively done through an equal shift in the music, as seen in the change from the protagonist to the priests in “2112” or the narrative gymnastics between the three main characters in “Finally Free”.
The flip side to this equation is that lacking these or similar techniques can both reduce the impact of the emotional intention or cohesion and, more importantly, result in a less coherent experience overall. At the risk of angering many a reader here, I feel Coheed and Cambria – a band I love dearly – are a prime example of this. Claudio’s space opera is rife with lyrical acrobatics that, while well thought out conceptually, suffer from a strong lack of clarity that is only partially alleviated by the supplementation of other media such as comics and novels. The exception to this is the fantastic The Afterman: Ascension/Descension, which not only offers a much deeper and rewarding self-contained narrative experience, but also manages to do this while having themes that are relatable to the average listener.
I’ve avoided referencing the use of outright narration seen in many fantasy or science fiction-based concepts due to the fact that while they may be entertaining or even internally diegetic at times, for the most part they come off as lazy and uninspired – not using any of the medium’s strengths to convey meaning.
Playing with expectations
Music relies on expectation and repetition. Choruses and riffs recur regularly, and listening to music more than once often garners a more positive experience as you learn the intricacies of each track and anticipate your favourite parts. As such, the motif, which at its core is a pattern or prevalent and recurring idea, is a perfect fit for how we experience music. In many ways, music is built on motifs, and we enjoy its repetition because we’ve been conditioned to this style. But I digress. The motif is a fundamental building block of narrative in music, and finding ways to incorporate and play with these patterns is a powerful tool in conveying the emotions of a story by giving the listener a something to latch on and return to throughout the experience (see Trivium’s “Shogun” as a prime example).
In particular, the recontextualization of the motif is a way an artist can play with both the satisfaction of experiencing the pattern and as a subversion of expectations, heightening the memorability and overall experience. Thematically or emotively, this can be accomplished by taking a particular passage or phrase and layering on a new musical texture and imbuing a new tonal identity, such as the way the main theme is continuously revisited in new ways on Transatlantic’s The Whirlwind. More ambitious still is when this concept is woven into the context of the story, like how a handful of lyrics and musical refrains are reused within a different perspective to imply new meanings during the first and second halves of Mile Marker Zero’s The Fifth Row.
One additional example of how expectations can be played with to a unique effect lays in Protest the Hero’s “Caravan“. I’ve touched upon this topic in more depth before, as this group is particularly adept at weaving narrative into music, but it’s worth a quick mention here as well. The final passage of the song has a chant/counter-chant in which the music is laid out in such a way that the audience would repeat a caricature of an argument that Rody then goes on to refute as the music alternates. It is a novel approach to have the audience play such an active role, essentially playing the villain.
How the listener fits in
The final piece of the puzzle lies in how the listeners themselves factor into the equation. Without leaning too much on Barthian philosophy or dead authors, it is undeniable that the interpretations that the listener makes while experiencing music is an active and pivotal element in the overall picture.
Berklee Online has a fascinating deep dive into the idea of ‘narrative gaps’ under their Take Notes series that you should definitely take a look at if what we are about to touch on here is up your alley. The article goes into how the human mind searches for connections and ‘fills in the gaps’ with experiences they’ve personally had as an inherent search for closure. It’s lengthy and has plenty of examples to really drive the points home. This article sets a good foundation for the idea that we have as much influence on the narrative as the creators themselves.
The core of the ideas mentioned stem from spurious correlations, or when we make connections between two unrelated things and create a mini-narrative about them, such as films that Nicholas Cage appears in and consumption of margarine (see the above article). So, if we take lyric A and lyric B – even if they are unrelated – we begin to concoct a micro-narrative about them. This, in essence, becomes our interpretation of the story, and is also why it is so important that the music work in concert with the ideas being presented to more effectively convey intent.
The simplest examples of this can be found on any list of tracks with misunderstood meanings. Hit songs such as “Imagine”, “Hotel California”, and “Closing Time” (which is actually about childbirth, fun fact) all have a divide between the intention of the artist and common interpretations. This is magnified when the concept of the narrative is expanded to be much grander, spanning multiple songs and following various characters. With careless writing, it may be hard for the listener to effectively connect the dots, and while it can be fun to puzzle out meaning in something that is densely complex, it is equally frustrating to have a story that you cannot follow from one minute to the next.
In some cases, these gaps can work wonders in providing room to find your own meaning in something with the depth to support introspection. Returning to “Escalator Shrine” from Riverside, the stage for the scene the track paints in a literal sense is of a post-apocalypse in which people trudge day after day to pray at a shrine of escalators, presumably at a dilapidated shopping mall like the one depicted in the cover art, and the internal conflict of the collective. The song’s final few lines are as follows:
‘We sense we’re almost there
But the night comes too soon
And we crawl in the dark
Not ready to face up
To unknowing lies
We ache to go back
But we can’t stop
So we walk ahead‘
There is a lot of room here to interpret the feeling of those struggling day after day, night after night. While some of the subtext regarding the current state of society is a little heavy-handed, the piece about crawling in the dark and aching to go back could mean many things. Is society in the dark now, leading to this dystopian vision, or is the dystopia itself the dark? Does the collective wish to go back to the way we have it now, or to before we began like this? Are we already on the path and this a simple caricature of us as we already are? It is undoubtedly a warning, but there is nuance in its context.
The trudge here is aptly conveyed by the sustained keys and slowed tempo of the drums alongside the shift to focus on the bass line. The guitar repeats the riff and the tone briefly touches a major scale before returning to a droning, repetitive minor riff that closes out the song. The music is in line with our expectations, a simple compliment, but its melancholic nature and repetitive drone help ensure we take this as foreboding and not optimistic or determined. It helps sell this as a fearful outcome that we have agency in.
Painting a picture
“Escalator Shrine” handles the execution of narrative well by touching on many of the points discussed in this article. It creates an aural narrative through tonal shifts and deliberate phrasing in instrumentation; its lyrics and music are aptly complimentary, and it provides enough gaps for the listener to fill in on their own. It uses the tools mentioned above to paint a picture, and hands a brush to the listener for the final finishing touches.
All the music mentioned in this article follows suit, using various techniques, styles, and approaches to craft unique emotive and story-based narratives. In turn, this narrative architecture ushers the listener in and puts the concept, ideas, and beliefs on a pedestal for the audience to take at their leisure. Narrative then becomes the crux of how this music is created, and more importantly, how it is experienced.
This was a long one, a hefty read, and I thank you for making it to the end. There is a whole lot more that can be said about this topic, but we will leave it here for now. We hope you took something away from this discussion, and if you would like to read more like this in the future or if there is a topic that you would like to see covered, make sure to let us know.