Musical narratives

Music is one of the art forms that needs time to unfold itself and this makes it a suitable medium for narrative. The link between music and words has been undoubtedly very early established, as the human voice was probably the first instrument ever used. Over the centuries, music has been utilized together with languages to add a new layer to stories, one which words alone hardly can describe. It is therefore understandable that narrative in music is to be found in every culture of the world and it can be seen as a correspondent of narrative visual art. The western European music has also been an efficient medium for transmitting stories. From Gesualdo’s madrigals to Ligeti’s “Nonsense Madrigals”, from Bach’s chorales to Schubert’s Lieder, from Mozart’s Requiem to Mahler’s Resurrection (2nd Symphony with choir) and from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” to Schönberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”, the marriage between music and literature has been prosperous. It is thereupon clear that assessing the narrativity of such genres of music is foremost a matter of analyzing the text and secondly its relationship with the music. This leads to the obvious question whether a symbiotic musical work, especially opera and ballet, has separate levels of narrativity or if there is a greater logic that governs every aspect of the narrative. To attempt an answer, another aspect must be first debated: can music be narrative through its own mechanisms? And is there such a thing as narrativity of abstract musical discourse?


In the past century, many musicologists have described music as a language, with its own grammar, syntax, semantics and semiotics. Thus, music as a narrative process appears to be an eligible assertion. And indeed, many people feel that instrumental music, such as Beethoven’s for instance, has a narrative force that resembles dramatic text. This is first of all a consequence of the fact that music, similarly to fictional narratives, has a logical sequence of events that is named form. So the parallel between literary and musical form can be further sustained: words become cells of musical notes, sentences and phrases become musical motifs, characters – musical themes, conflicts – musical sections and so on. Talking about the musical theme, the Romanian composer Dan Dediu compares it to a character from a novel or a drama and explains that not the sound pattern is the key to underlining a theme, but its power of invocation:

To become a theme, the sound configuration has to adopt a role, to wear a mask. It becomes consequently a character, a significant sonorous entity that bears soulful content. It is not the composing sounds that constitute the theme, but the expression that they invoke and illustrate. (2004, 117)

This statement also applies when explaining music as narrative in general: not the actual sounds tell a story, but rather what they depict in our imagination.


The best example of a musical narrative is probably the sonata form, based on tonal relationships, which served as foundation for most classical and romantic composers in their symphonies, concertos or chamber pieces:

Literary plot2

Musical plot

Exposition (introduction of characters, usually good and bad)

Exposition (first and second theme in contrasting tonalities)

Rising action (conflicts, obstacles etc.)

Development3 (structural, tonal and rhythmic instability)



Falling action (conflicts head towards a resolution, but the action is still tense)

Retransition (going back to the main theme/tonality, often through a tense dominant4 section)

Dénouement (final confrontation between protagonist and antagonist)

Reprise (first and second theme again, but in the same tonality)


While the close similarities between the two forms establish the sonata as a convincing musical narrative, it is not only the form of a piece that associates it to fiction, since not every listener has information about music theory. Berio’s pieces “Sequenzas” for different solo instruments give the impression that a narrator is telling a story – a consequence not necessarily of the form, but also of the musical discourse’s fluidity. Fred Everett Maus observes that the musical discourse has other characteristics than the literary one (e.g. repetitions), since it lacks the power of past tense, and that the listener usually does not differentiate the discourse from the narrative in a musical piece. “To the extent that musical surfaces are understood as discourse [...] there will presumably be some sense of an agency [...]. But this agency has a strange impersonality, akin to the silent, invisible intelligence that guides the montage of a film rather than a vividly dramatized speaker [...]” (Maus 1990).


And what about narrativity in instrumental music? Is it the actual power of music to evoke storytelling or is it a sum of all the qualities that make music musical? François-Bernard Mâche claims that it originates in the flow of energy:

Narrativity in music implies that instead of starting from such static notions as form, symmetry or dissymmetry, proportions or tone-hierarchy, one cares first for dynamic processes, either abstract, like energy distribution, or metaphorical, as scenarios and plots. The details, episodes, characters, conflicting or coalescing Gestalten, all are organized afterwards. (1995)

Clearly, narrativity in instrumental music is a figurative notion and it involves the interpretation of abstract concepts, such as musical entities. While narrative in music is shaped by its creator and his compositional techniques, the narrativity of music is usually perceived as expressivity.


Perhaps the most simple, yet profound explanation of the narrative in music was given by Theodor Adorno, when he talked about Mahler’s music: “a narrative that narrates nothing” (Adorno cited in Nattiez 1990, 128).


2 The dramatic structure proposed by Gustav Freytag for Greek and Shakespearian dramas.

3 In the classical sonata form, the development includes the climax and the retransition.

4 The sense of musical dominant (the harmonic function of the 5th step in a tonality).


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