Stories and Music

From the beginning of our species, humans have been telling stories; we’re obsessed with them. From ancient origin myths to movies and television, Greek tragedies to Broadway, and papyrus scrolls to paperback novels, we tell stories in all sorts of ways, and we can’t get enough of them. With them we find meaning, we imagine, and we emote; storytelling is uniquely human, and evokes the very behaviors that are generally thought to define what makes us human.

Often found coupled with storytelling is music. We often use music to tell stories that evoke emotions, or make us think and imagine. The relationship between narrative and music is one that is difficult to parse out, however. You can have stories without music; can you have music without a story? It seems obvious to say yes; music may not have the same characters, the same actions, and the same plot that we recognize so easily in stories, but they have themes. They have recurring tones and sounds, interactions between those themes, and a syntax as complex as that of the languages that form stories without music. Seemingly most important, both music and story are essentially experiences – they unfold in time, and must be experienced. So how do we understand this relationship between music and stories? Is music a specialized type of story, simply part of a much larger concept of stories? Or are they two separate things that interact?

Some questions Patel raises in his book, Music, Language, and the Brain, are how we define and understand the meaning created by music, and whether emotion is inherent in the music, separate entirely, or whether it may exist both within and separate from the music. He enumerates a few different theories about how these concepts may be related, but ultimately leaves this question unanswered. In the aim of understanding these connections better, along with music’s connection to story, I have several questions I wish to explore. For example:

Can a story change the perception of the emotions of a musical piece? Or perhaps vice versa, can a musical piece played after/during a story change emotional perception?

What contributes to perceiving a narrative in a piece of music? Do different rhythms give rise to different narrations? Perhaps by asking subjects to create narratives for many different rhythms will reveal some consistencies or similarities.

How do structures of music relate to structures of stories? Do people recognize and connect the two? Perhaps by finding or creating a story with a similar arc as a piece of music, I can ask people to identify the larger structure, and see which is better, if there are any similarities, and so on.

Are people consistent with the creation of narratives in music? For instance, do people generally create similar sounding narratives for the same piece of music?

Expectation Theory states that we create unconscious expectations when listening to music, and was shown to do so with short groups of tones. Do stories create the same types of expectations? Perhaps using either long or short sentences to create a seeming “rhythm”, and then changing to the other type might create a similar violation of expectation, and make it more difficult to remember the content.

Does music in stories help us remember things better? Perhaps setting a story to music would help subjects remember the content of the story better than those who got the story without the music.

Though there hasn’t been a lot of work done in this area; Patel’s book is a good general overview of research that was current at the time, but rather than give a conclusive answer to questions, Patel gives several possible theories that could answer the question for each. The next step will be to continue to seek out further research that specifically focuses on what I’m interested in, to see if there is any sort of precedence for the types of experiments I want to run.

*These are many questions, and while it is unlikely that I will be able to create an experiment that explores all of them, many of them are related, and so I believe it will be possible for me to create a large scale experiment, or a slew of smaller experiments that will give me data to answer a fair amount of the questions I have.

One thought on “Stories and Music

  1. Since we talked about your topic at some length today, my reply will be short. I think your research topic is shaping up nicely and I like that you were able to come up with so many relevant questions. I would encourage you to take a loom at the materials I had sent to you previously as I still think they are related. Narrative is a particularly rich topic in music analysis and music-theoretical discourse, so even if your perspective on it is from a different angle, I think there is some benefice for you to get acquainted with at least a couple of the classics. One that comes to mind is Leonard Meyer’s landmark monograph “Emotion and Meaning in Music.” I don’t remember if he touches on the question of stories and narrative specifically, but it’s worth looking into. Also, I don’t know if you are familiar with 19th-centure Western European music, but there is a tradition of works referred to as “program music” which explicitly features story lines. A good example is Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. This might be some interesting source materials for experimental studies.

    Well, that’s it for tonight! Let me know if you need more pointers.

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