Music and the art of storytelling

We just returned from an enjoyable evening listening to chamber music. The Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival, in its fourth season this year, presents free public chamber music concerts at various venues in Trinity County. The music is always beautiful, and the performers are delightful.

Tonight’s performance featured three compositions by Brahms. Each was intricate and compelling, as well as thematically unique, but something that the leader of the festival said really caught my attention. He mentioned that one of the pieces, apparently Brahms’ favorite, was full of musical jokes.

Musical jokes?

Yes, music is a language, and one can tell jokes in that language. This got me thinking. I’ve always heard that a musical composition can tell a story, but I had always considered that to be metaphorical, insofar as my concept of a story includes features such as characters, plot lines, and so forth. Well, why can’t music tell a story too? What elements in a musical composition are analogous to characters, plot lines, or settings? Or are the elements of musical storytelling of a different nature altogether?

Thinking these thoughts turned me back to my own media, those of narrative prose and lyrical poetry. I know that some authors have experimented with using other elements of a story to convey its narrative, such as structural elements (word counts, rhyming, even the rhythm of paragraphs) and meta-narration (author’s notes that include an ongoing plot drawn from real life). I’ve even used something along these lines, in that the poems in “The Soul Thief” provide hints of Cassandra’s inner life and, ultimately, a powerful clue to assist Angela in healing her. But I think it would be very interesting to consider using word rhythm and phonology to convey story elements. The goal would be to trigger mood changes and increase subliminal tension, and if consciously chosen could provide endless ways to divert the reader.

More on this later?

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