Song vs. Story

(Picture from here.)

My father was a musician and my mother was a writer. Apparently, it’s harder to teach story than music so I started piano at four and have kept it up ever since. Think of me as a determined and talentless, but enthusiastic, amateur.

But my mother got me in the end.

Over the years I’ve been thinking over and over how music and narrative are related. I don’t mean sound tracks intended to support or tell actual stories or things like opera where stories are performed with music. No, I mean the structure of music itself seems to be strongly related to structure of story telling.

I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Story narrative and music both bind time. Narrative binds time in the form of a list of events– even if those events are out of sequence. Though the binding in the case of stories is looser. A reader isn’t forced to read stories, sentences or even words one after the other. Some (me, included) tend to read blocks of words, skipping forward and back within the block. In comics narrative can float across the page in all sorts of ways.

Music, though, binds time exactly. The note is played at a given time and no other. Even if the performer is improvising, once the note is played it cannot be unplayed. The note is fixed in time.

However, I think the relationship between story and music is even deeper. To prove my thesis I’m going to crawl through a fairly easy pop song I happen to like. It’s called The Transient Apple Salesgirl. It’s a Japanese song– I like listening to J-Pop. I’m not distracted by the words. It has something to do with transience. And girls. And apples, I think. Listen to it here.

I mean I could do it with Beethoven but then we’d be here forever.

This song has a number of musical themes that happen at particular points in the song. It begins with a mechanical sound like the winding of a music box. Then a music box plays followed by a little singing. Then the song starts in earnest. It has the following themes.

  • music box theme: trifle played on a music box
  • descent theme: descending pitch theme that is reminiscent of the music box theme, but descending in tone rather than ascending
  • bridge theme: a broken rhythm theme that ascends sort of like a counter point to the descent theme
  • chorus: strong declarative musical line that seems to echo the music box theme
  • crossed lines bridge (up and down): interesting theme where the voices go up and down but the background inverts it at the same time.
  • Resolution theme: resolves the tension in the crossed lines bridge

Here are the times for these themes in the song:

  • 0:00 – mechanical introduction (winding up of music box)
  • 0:05 – music box theme
  • 0:19 – music box singing
  • 0:44 – descent theme
  • 1:36 – bridge theme
  • 1:49 – chorus
  • 2:07 – crossed lines bridge (up and down)
  • 2:16 – descent theme
  • 2:40 – bridge theme full
  • 3:07 – chorus
  • 3:25 – crossed lines bridge (up and down)
  • 3:33 – chaotic bridge based on bridge and crossed lines theme
  • 3:45 – crossed lines bridge/bridge theme
  • 4:00 – Resolution theme: inversion of crossed lines
  • 4:28 – chorus based on music box
  • 4:45 – chorus raised key
  • 5:04 – crossed lines bridge
  • 5:12 – instrumental fade based on resolution theme
  • 5:38 – music box fade

Now, if you graph these themes you get the picture of the song visually. (Click image to enlarge.)



One of the first things you can see is the repetition pattern. Note two of the themes that are first introduced, the descent theme and the chorus, are big in the beginning and get smaller towards the end of the song. Note also, that some of the small themes in the beginning increase towards the end. Similarly, some of the sections are blended.

It’s also clear the sections get smaller and smaller as time goes on.

Some of the themes are constructed to echo previous themes. The chorus has a relationship to the music box. The resolution theme has a relationship to the crossed lines.

Good stories are filled with these textures, resonances and relationships. Often, something in the beginning of a given story might appear unrelated to what comes immediately after but by the end of the story makes perfect sense.

Some of the sections have more than one theme in them. There’s a section at 4:28 where the chorus them is played against the music box. Similarly, there’s a section at 3:33 where both the bridge theme and the crossed lines theme are played against one another. At 3:45 this same blend is played frantically, chaotically, in a climax to the song.

In a story, when the climax is reached, the scene nearly always presents elements that have gone before– otherwise the climax doesn’t make any sense. Would Neo’s belief in himself when he faces the agent make any sense if he hadn’t gone through a crisis of faith before. Would his saving of Morpheus make any sense if Morpheus hadn’t reached out to him before? Would Neo’s battle with the agent work if the agent hadn’t betrayed a personal antagonism to human beings? All of these little resonances and nuances play out in story.

And they play out in music in pretty much the same way. In Apple, the resolution theme is built in part from the crossed lines bridge. The crossed lines bridge echoes the previous descent theme. And, of course, the music box bookends the whole song. In a story, we would expect the resolution to echo and relate the conflicts that came before. Similarly, the conflicts themselves would have resonances to the situation, the character and world of the story. We have expectations of the path of a story. We have similar expectations of the path of a song. Sometimes the story/song fulfills the expectations. Sometimes it confounds them– to our delight.

It’s hard to take apart a story. After all, you must read and understand the internal pieces of the story to make sense of them. And it’s hard to keep from being swept away from it.

But you can engineer the experience with music. You can choose a small piece– this one is only about six minutes long– that’s relatively simple. Choose one where the language doesn’t interfere.

Then, pick apart the piece and get a sense of how the components mesh. That sense of things can then be translated into how a story works: The color palette can reflect something important. (The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover.) The image of scissors. (Dead Again.) The river can tie it together. (Huckleberry Finn.)

I heard in a lecture years and years ago that music is composed of equal parts surprise and inevitability.

What a wonderful surprise. Stories are, too.




Song vs. Story — 3 Comments

  1. I am married to a musician – composer, who is also a splendid writer — and editor in both music and words. He’s also, no surprise then, a very good song writer. I’ve learned so much about writing, critical analysis from him and all the other music people by whom I’ve been surrounded all these years (also from artists — and attorneys — btw!).

    Love, c.

  2. This doesn’t surprise me at all. At least, I am a visual reader (and writer) so books and music evoke images in me equally. Once I really know a piece of music, it’s interesting to take apart the component parts and see how it evokes the images.

  3. I’ve heard the analogy used before but you nailed it beautifully. There may be some who don’t get it at first, but you KNOW the very next time they listen to a certain piece of music, they’ll be like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” in that scene at the opera….