Stories in Sound

(This is a follow-up to the previous blog “How does music mean?” It is indebted to Rob Kapilow for some of its basic ideas.)

We began exploring the idea that instrumental music (i.e. music without any sung words) can tell a story. This is the whole entire crux, core, and cipher, to listening to orchestral music: listening for plot. I often say that most people listen to orchestral music the way I listen to the news in French; I like how it sounds but I have no idea what's being said. We're going to change that!

The question is, HOW do we do it? 

A piece of music is a Story in Sound. Remember that quote about poetry: “self-entering, self-generating, self-complicating, self-resolving form.” In other words, the music is about itself. This means that, as with all great art, we can read our own life experiences - the struggles, the joys, the hardships, the triumphs - into what we are hearing. It is the very reason for art: to find the universal in the personal.    

Here is how it is done. Think of a police procedural drama on TV. It has an instantly familiar format.

There is a short teaser, to set the scene (e.g. someone is shot).

After the opening titles, the scenario is laid out more clearly in greater detail (the cops arrive on the scene and start to analyze the crime.)

After an ad break we come back to discover a plot twist or complication (the suspect in custody was actually giving birth during the shooting and so the cops have got the wrong gal.)

The tension is successively heightened during this complication, as the plot thickens (the cops realize the real shooter is about to get away and so they lay chase in hot pursuit.)

This leads to a climactic moment (there is a big shootout and showdown) and then a slow release of all the accumulated tension (one of the cops is injured, but they eventually prevail.)

The story is then wrapped-up to give a satisfying conclusion, with some earlier themes and characters revisited (perhaps there is a black-and-white flashback montage where all the pieces fall into placeback, or we see the hero back at HQ taking the suspects' mug-shots down from a pin board.)

The End.

This is exactly what happens in music. Most often in what we call ‘Sonata Form’ (stay tuned for more on this...)

There is an introduction,

an exposition of themes (the scenario),

a development of these themes (complications/plot-twists), a climax, 

a recap (revisiting characters/themes),

and possibly a coda (a satisfying wrap-up.)


This is the basis for most instrumental music from 1750 to 1900.

When you begin to understand that music is telling a story in sound, your experience will change radically and forever. You are at the start of a wonderful journey of listening differently; in the words of Dr. Seuss, ‘Oh, the places you’ll go!’ 

Kirsten Hicks