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  • Writer's pictureLuca Fagagnini

Music and Narrative: How and Why Sounds Tell Stories

When we say "Narrative Music", we often refer to "Music Which Tells A story".

We probably all have experience of listening to a piece of music and picture a story develop in our mind (classic trip on the bus with earpods and a sad song, for instance).

But what does Narrative Music (or sound) means, more specifically? What characteristics make a sound "Narrative"? And how can we use it at our advantage, when crafting a musical piece in support of a story (whether it is told via a film, a video game or anything else)?

For thousands of years, we have been conditioned by our experiences of the natural world around us, and have associated objects and events to the particular sounds they produce (we see a dog, we know what kind of sounds it may produce), and vice versa (we hear a bark, we know that there must be a dog nearby).

This association process is a key concept in sound narrative. We can in fact take advantage of all the evolutionary and intrinsic knowledge we have of sounds, reducing (Michel Chion, Audio Vision, 1994) them to their fundamental characteristics (such as their pitch, frequency content and amplitude, as well as their evolution over time), and superimpose these characteristics to new objects (or sounds) which will inherit these features, acquiring new meaning and, consequently, a new narrative power.

For instance, in our every day experience, low-pitched sounds are usually produced by big sources, while high-pitched sounds are originated by tiny sources (eg. the sound of a mosquito).

Besides the physical reason why this happens (the bigger the source, the longer the sound wave length produced will be whenever that source vibrates), if we take these characteristics and produce a sound, or compose a piece of music which presents these features, we are intrinsically giving it a meaning, a narrative, and a function.

The combination (or composition) of these sounds into a cohesive (or not) whole, and a development arc over time, may create all kinds of different narratives: we can compose static and neutral, anxious, very active and upbeat, sad and desperate stories, and we can also create creepy and phobic sounds.

The magic happens when we associate these aural compositions with an experience driven by any of the other senses.

When we have a picture, we often immediately get its meaning, and (usually) understand what the picture is telling us in terms of descriptive information that our eyes are perceiving: for instance, if we see the image of a forest, we know it is a forest. We may create our narrative about it, give it subjective charactieristics, but the objective information about what we are seeing is, arguably, there: a location, a place, objects and subjects, specific colours, etc.

If we add music to this picture, suddenly, we are superimposing a secondary narrative or meaning to it which is then providing us with a sub-text of information about what is happening, a sort of comment about how we should experience what we are seeing. We are creating a context for the image and a context for the music, thus generating a new narrative world which is far more complex and deeper than the sum of its components.

And just like that the forest becomes a sacred place, a scary place, an ominous presence, or a majestic entity.

In this video the notes played are just two consecutive pitches and their distance increases over time, covering all the possible intervals found within an octave (distance from one specificc note and that same note with a higher pitch, for example, C3 to C4). Have a listen and notice how just the interval (distance in pitch) between them has the astounding power of creating different moods and stories.

The main instrument used in the above example is a singe bassoon (and a simple pad for cohesion between phrases), and the reason of our choice was simply to create a physical material connection between the features of the instrument and the subject: forest = wood = woodwinds. But any other instrument could work as well (and, arguably, it may work even better).

What is interesting, though, is that we chose a range of notes quite low, so we took the reduced characteristics of big objects which often produce low pitched sounds (low = big), and use them to create a sound/composition which could provide the sense of large, which, associated with the forest seen in the picture, establishes a logical (or, actually, a subconsious) connection and an intrinsic linear semantic between music and picture.

In the next video we'll see the same picture and the same intervals of notes are being used, but played in a higher range:

Suddenly the narrative changes.

Now, the instrument used is still of the woodwind family, but since the bassoon used in the previous video has its best tonal qualities in its low-mid range, we used flutes instead, which have their best range in their mid-high register.

We can see that the new sound and range suddenly provides the picture with a contrasting depth and a meaning which is not directly associated with the literal characteristics of the forest.

Here's the interesting part: since our brain, as already mentioned earlier, must find order in chaos, and a meaning to perceived things, a new narrative is automatically created and the point of view/perspective is switched from literal focus on the majestity of the forest to whatever could be associated with the new high pitched sounds, related to the forest and natural (or imaginary) world and life. For example, little fairies, innocence, youth, or a sacred place in time.

When composing music, particularly in support of a story, it can often be beneficial to take advantage of the main features, themes, characters and events and try to figure out what their key characteristics are, in order to reduce them to features which can perhaps be used when conceptualising the score to be written.

With this article, we only briefly touched the topic, and tried to provide an introduction to the subject exploring how pitch and interval between notes affect the narrative and meaning of a musical piece (particularly when this is in support of a different medium), in the hope to give you a little insight and inspiration when thinking about crafting a score and support the narrative of the story to be told. An interesting series of videos by Leanard Bernstein delves into the subject of music, language and semantic in a very detailed and inspiringway, and, if you are interested in learning more about the communicative power of music, a view of those videos is seriously suggested.


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