Archive for April, 2012

Narrative in Music?

A. The existence of narrative in music.

‘Name a piece of music which is not narrative’. I was confronted by this deamnd in an interview. The interviewer clearly thought it self-evident that all music is narrative, though this is not a view shared by all writers in the subject. Ball (2010, p392) for instance, regards narrative as ‘simply not an essential, or even important, part of music’.

There is a sense in which the interviewer was obviously right if the question is taken literally. Music is a temporal art. One thing is heard, then another, then another, until the piece ends. Therefore there could be said to be a narrative.

This literal definition suffers from limitations. The term ‘narrative’ implies some sense of intentional connection between the events. To someone standing outside a sequence of events, for instance in a street watching passers-by, there may be no sense of narrative, only a series of unconnected events. The same is capable of being true of music. A piece may present a series of ideas following one another and juxtaposed against one another, but there need not necessarily be a process connecting them.

An example are J S Bach’s French Dance Suites (BWV 812-817). One dance follows another. Each dance, as is general in baroque music, has a distinct and consistent character. Each has its internal harmonic process and progression, but it lacks an internal process of dramatic inter-action between musical ideas. Each dance is followed by another dance of a different character. There are contrasts, but it is questionable whether they can be said to add up to a musical narrative.

One can think of modern music which is hard for a listener to ‘follow’ in terms of narrative structure. The listener is seeking to answer the question ‘How does what I am hearing now relate to what I heard just before and earlier in the piece?’ In other words, they are trying to construct a narrative in order to make sense of the musical experience.

The composer may not have intended the music to be listened to in this way, but rather heard as an experience requiring the suspension of the narrative-building behaviour which people commonly engage in when they try to make sense of experience. The music of Ferneyhough or Feldman are seen by some as examples of this type of music.

It is therefore arguable that narrative in music, far from being inevitable, may depend on the intentions of the composer, and on the aesthetic context within which the composer was writing. It is argued by Hatten (1991, p96) that ‘..certain musical styles would seem more capable of exploiting the basic technique of narrative: the meaningful ordering of expressive events, and their meaningful description..’ and he considers nineteenth century music to be the prime example. Seaton (2005), for instance, identifies the sense of a narrator in Beethoven’s music as evidence of the narrative quality of the music.

Further questions arise in relation to music with words as opposed to purely instrumental music. The presence of the words may necessarily introduce a narrative into the musical work, since the words will generally be grammatical in character and follow a sequence with a sense of logic and progression. The role of the instrumental sounds may be supportive and illustrative of the direct presentation of a verbal narrative. They may be seeking to evoke or act out the verbal narrative, and therefore could be seen as a form of mimetic, or imitative, expression, rather than being narrative – i.e. telling a story rather than acting it out.

Discussing the idea of narrative in abstract, instrumental, music Maus (2005, p466) defines two possibilities, that such music is:
‘a form of narrative representation’
or that there exist (he prefers this definition)
‘analogies between instrumental music and discourses normally understood as narrative.’

It can be seen that the question of the existence of narrative in music is neither obvious nor straightforward, and further investigation is justified.

B. Locating the Narrator

This discussion has thrown up not just the question of the existence and nature of narrative in music, but the question of the perception of the listener. It has therefore pointed to the need to investigate the identity of the narrator, if any, in music.

The composer has a concept of the music, which may develop and grow as the piece is written. They may seek to communicate their sense of the piece, and their sense of its narrative, if any, though not only the notated music, but also titles and programme notes. However, composers do not write music. The score is silent. They write instructions for the production or performance of music. Others interpret these instructions.

Performers, faced with a set of musical instructions, need to make sense of them both technically and as a performance. They perform an interpretation of the musical instructions in front of them. Perhaps there exists some ideal version of the piece, with all performances as imperfect approximations. This ideal of the musical work has been analysed (Goehr, 2007), and shown to be an historically situated concept rather than a universal one. It only began to be used in relation to Beethoven. Earlier composers treated their music as material which they felt free to borrow from or repeat, rather than regarding each piece as a finished work. Equally, there is no necessary reason to think that the concept of an ideal version of a musical work retains its validity today.

As a modern composer I feel that my music only exists at the moment of performance. While I have a clear idea of the piece when writing it, the music never sounds quite the same in performance. The only versions and the only musical narratives heard are the ones communicated by performers. Eventually, my original idea is superseded by my recollections of the music as performed.

Equally, and one could argue this in the case of some modern pieces, it may be that the only people trying to develop a concept of narrative in relation to a piece of music are the listeners. They may be following the human inclination to try to summarise experiences, as a narrative in order to make sense of them. Their reaction may be inappropriate to the piece of music concerned if the intention is that they should let go of attempts to make narrative sense of the music and simply experience the flow of sounds. The piano music of Morton Feldman is an example.

C. Narratlogy

In music, the location of the narrator, and the nature of the narrative act, is therefore complex and potentially ambiguous. In novels, the narrative process may certainly be very complex, but it follows a more predictable and better understood pattern, and does not suffer from ambiguity in the same way.
This point brings the discussion to the question of the potential universality of the narrative concept in much academic writing.

Classical narratology of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, focussed on the novel. A clear distinction was drawn between the dependence of the novel on the presence of a narrator, and other forms of story-telling where there is no narrator.

Writers have explored the highly complex structures involved in the process of narration. They distinguish narratives from stories and dramatic presentations. Drama presents an imitation of actions or events – mimesis. Narrative tells of them – diagesis. That much is simple.

But beyond that, such writers distinguish between the story or fabula, which consists of the series of events, and the narrative, which consists of the process of telling the story. At its simplest level, narratives may not tell stories in chronological order, and clearly take periods of time to tell stories which are different from the elapsed time within the story itself.

Writers of the classical or ‘structuralist’ school of narratology analysed how narratives work, and developed terminologies to describe their grammar and syntax, rather than their content. There is an implied universalism to the concepts, which are seen as relevant to any situation where there is a narrator.

One key question in this research will therefore be whether such concepts can be applied in a helpful way to the analysis of music.

Structuralist narratology went into a period of decline under the twin assaults of deconstructionist philosophy and post-modernist thinking. More recently there has been a ‘narrative turn’, with the extension of narratological analyses to other arts and to subjects beyond the arts. It is not necessary here to go into why these changes occurred, only to note them.

Recent writers on cognitive narratology and socio-narratology have examined the way in which narrative-making arises from the functioning of the human brain. It is seen as a universal human activity originating in our need to interpret the behaviour of other humans, extending from this to our need to make sense of any situation or set of experiences. Such writers, as well as examining the psychological and social nature of the narrative process, examine the content of the narratives they analyse.
Again, there is a claim to universalism. The same question arises of the applicability of such concepts to music, and whether they apply to all the participants equally – composer, performers, listeners.

D. Conclusion

Enough has been said to demonstrate that the question of the existence and nature of narrative in music is a complex one and that there are aspects of the subject which deserve further study.
The planned study will consist of the following further sections, which will be published here as they emerge:

2. Origins of structuralist narratology and its heyday.
3. The grammar and syntax of narrative, and its application to music.
4. Deconstructionism, post-modernism, and the ‘narrative turn’.
5. Post-classical, post-modern, cognitive, and social narratology, and their relationship to music.
6. The academic study of narrative in music.
7. Developing a way of analysing the narratives in music.

Ball, Philip, 2010, The music instinct. How music works and why we can’t do without it. London, The Bodley Head
Goehr, Lydia, 2007, The imaginary museum of musical works: An essay in the philosophy of music. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press.
Hatten, Robert, 1991. On Narrativity in Music: Expressive Genres and Levels of Discourse in Beethoven, Indiana Theory Review, Vol. 12, p-p75-96. University of Indiana Press, Indianapolis
Maus, Fred Everett, 2005, Classical Instrumental Music and Narrative, in Phelan, James, and Rabinowitz, Peter J., Eds, A Companion to Narrative Theory, Malden MA, Oxford, Carlton, Australia, Blackwell Publishing, pp466-483
Seaton, Douglas, 2005, Narrative in music: The case of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata. In: Narratology beyond literary criticism: Mediality, Disciplinarity, Ed. Jan Christoph Meister. Berlin and New York, Walter de Gruyter


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