Archive for July, 2013


The idea of narrative in music is contested. Views of musicologists range from those of Ball who dismisses the concept as ‘… simply not an essential, or even important, part of music …’ (2010: 392) to those of Almén (2008) who has produced a comprehensive theory of narrative in music. I plan to address this issue by asking who, if anybody, is the narrator in Western abstract art music.

I will focus on this type of music since western instrumental music in the classical genre has been the almost exclusive subject of debate on this question. Other genres, and classical music with words, raise different questions which are outside the scope of this paper.

Listeners to abstract art music commonly make representational narrative interpretations of the music. Authors such as Almén (2003:12) have argued from this that the listener is the true narrator in such music.

I will question this view, on two grounds:

  • that such music communicates through abstract sound, and we usually have no evidence that composers conceived it in representational terms;
  • that listener-generated narratives arise from the listeners’ wish to communicate the abstract experience of the music. Such narratives may be evidence of the existence of narrativity in the music, but do not show accurately what the narrative is about.

First, I want to look at the view that only the music of certain periods is generally interpreted in narrative terms.

Second, I will present the argument that musical narratives operate as abstract sound.

I will then return to the question of the identity of the narrator.

1. Narrative and non-narrative art-music.

It is argued that narrativity does not exist in all art music since it is dependent on the intentions of the composer and their aesthetic context. Hatten (1991) argues 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. (Hatten 1991:96)

He considers nineteenth century music to be the prime example.

Seaton (2005) sees narrativity in music as an historically specific phenomenon, and considers that the music of the Classical period, prior to the nineteenth century, could ‘… better be regarded as dramatic than as narrative’ (Seaton 2005:69). He considers that, while the classical style had introduced elements which could be read as a plot, characteristic of drama, romantic music introduced the idea of voice into music and therefore created the sense of a narrator. (Seaton 2005:69)

Karl points out that music which ‘… does not present its stories in real time.’ (Karl 1991:44) is as a result experienced as a narrative. Such music communicates a sense of passing through a series of states faster than could be experienced in real time. We therefore perceive a narrator summarising longer experiences as a shorter narrative.

By contrast, an analysis of Mozart’s piano concertos by Keefe (1999) identifies dramas of competition and co-operation, as if acted out in sound before our ears, rather than a sense of a narrator recounting and summarising the drama.

So, only music from the nineteenth century onwards is regarded by scholars as possessing narrativity.

2. Abstract narrative in music

My argument is that narratives in Western abstract art music are transmitted and received wholly as abstract sound. Against this, it might be argued that there are certain musical works where the composer specified a programme or title which implies actions or reactions.

Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14, has a programme which refers to characters and events. However, Cone (1974) argues that:

Belioz’s intent [in the programme] … was not to describe the scenes and incidents, but to depict his hero’s reactions to them. (Cone 1974:83)

Cone’s (1974) reading of the symphony is as a sequence of emotional states within a third person, the hero. However, we know from Berlioz’ own biography that this hero is closely related to the composer. We could therefore say that the composer adopted the narrative persona of the hero in order to write this work.

Relevant to this is Abbate’s (1991:23) view of certain narrative analyses of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The writers she comments on suggest that the music depicts events. She argues, like Cone (1974), that the music communicates the composer’s reaction to events, real or imagined.

However, as Nattiez (1990) has shown, if listeners hear programme music without being told the programme, they are entirely unable to give accurate accounts of the programme. In his view, the music therefore cannot be said to represent the programme. I would argue that while some composers chose to give indications of their own representational interpretation of the music, the music itself does not represent that interpretation.

The many scholarly narrative interpretations of abstract music share two characteristics. First, they are made in representational terms. Second, while evidence is presented that the interpretation put forward may be close to the narrative intentions of the composer, in no case are the scholars able to demonstrate composer intention directly.

Examples are the analyses of Schumann (Kramer 2002: Newcomb 1984 and 1987), Beethoven (Jander 1985 and 1995: Hatten 1991: Kerman 1992: McLary 2004), Humperdinck (Neuberger 1997), Chopin (Klein 2004), and many others.

If the composers conceived the music in terms of representational narratives, we usually do not know what they were. It is entirely possible that the composers conceived the music purely as abstract sound, without specifying a representational narrative even to themselves.

I would argue that such music is initially experienced just as abstract sound narratives. However, when a listener encounters a piece of abstract music, they are unable to explain it in terms of its original medium, of sound. They therefore translate the experience into a verbal representation.

So, one can say that the existence of listener narrative interpretations may be provoked by narrative cues in the music. One cannot say that such interpretations are clear evidence of the nature of the narrative.

3. The significance of listener-generated narratives

Drawing this distinction between the abstract narrative cues in certain music, and the representational interpretations created by listeners, raises the question of the way in which narrative meaning may be said to come into existence.

Barthes (1977) argues that:

there can be no narrative without a narrator and a listener (or reader). (Barthes, 1977: 109) [and that] … every narrative is dependent on a ‘narrative situation’, the set of protocol’s according to which the narrative is ‘consumed’. (Barthes, 1977: 116)

Barthes’ view is clearly that both narrator and listener are required. This view is consistent with the possibility that a narrator may communicate one thing and a listener may perceive another.

However, listeners do not appear to make narrative interpretations of pre-nineteenth century music. It is therefore unlikely that the making of narrative interpretations resulted from a change in listener perceptions at that time, since otherwise one would expect to encounter narrative interpretations of earlier music. I therefore take the view that narrative interpretations of music are provoked by narrative cues in the music.

In the light of this, it is instructive to look at the work of writers who have argued that the listener is the true narrator in music, and also at the views of those who have questioned the idea of narrativity in music because they dismiss the validity of listener-generated narratives.

Almén (2003 and 2008) has published a comprehensive theory of narrative in music, and takes the view that:

Musical narrative is the process through which the listener perceives and tracks a culturally significant transvaluation of hierarchical relationships within a temporal span. (Almén 2003:12)

In other words, the narrative does not come into existence until the listener creates it. This appears to reflect a view that unless a narrative can be described in representational terms then it has not been brought into existence. Almén considers that all musical narratives are expressions of a limited range of narrative archetypes of the kinds defined by Northrop Frye (1957) and Liszka (1989). Such narratives are inescapably representational.

Nattiez (1990), however, dismisses the idea of narrativity in music on the grounds that it only exists in the mind of the listener, and argues that music is not capable of narrativity. He regards listener narratives as an example of the pattern of human behaviour described by Ricoeur (1984) of interpreting any complex sequence of events in simpler narrative terms. His objection is that listeners have:

a wish to complete through words what the music does not say because it is not in its semiological nature to say it … (Nattiez 1990:245)

While I agree with Nattiez’s questioning of listener-generated narratives as evidence of the nature of musical narratives, his position does not allow for the fact that listeners only make narrative interpretations of music written from the early nineteenth century onwards. The existence of listener interpretations confined to the music of that period suggests that they have been provoked into making them by narrative cues in the music.

Nattiez (1990) appears to equate narrativity with representation, and does not allow for the possibility of narratives communicated and understood purely through abstract sound. His questioning of whether narrativity can be inherent in certain music appears to result from this conflation of narrativity and representation.

McGilchrist’s (2009) study of the different functions carried out by the two brain hemispheres contains an important discussion of music as a form of non-verbal communication received and understood by the right hemisphere of the brain. The left hemisphere, by contrast, is the one mainly used for verbal communication, and so is used to make representational interpretations of the abstract musical narratives experienced by the right hemisphere.

Almén’s (2003, 2008) argument that listeners’ verbal interpretations of the music are the true narrative would be seen, following to McGilchrist’s analysis, as an example of the left hemisphere imposing its narrower verbal interpretation on the more complete abstract sound experience received by the right hemisphere.

I therefore agree with Hatten, who queries the validity of representational interpretations. He argues for an avoidance of ‘… overly impressionistic metaphors or overly specific programmatic analyses …’ (Hatten 1987:208).

He argues that the works he has analysed, however, demonstrate a ‘… semiotic level of dramatic closure …’ (Hatten 1987:208) which cannot adequately be described through formal or harmonic analysis. I agree that we do not need representational interpretations to establish that there is narrativity inherent in the music, even though their existence is evidence of that narrativity.

4. The composer, or the narrative posture?

We could move directly to the identification of the composer as the narrator whom we encounter in listening to certain music. Hatten describes abstract music as ‘… a sequence of emotional states, rather than referential events …’ (Hatten 1991:75) and considers that the composer is the narrator.

This identification of the composer as the narrator is one I consider does not fully reflect the nature of the compositional process. While we may encounter a set of narrative cues set up by the composer, we cannot be certain how these relate to the composer as a person.

To examine the relationship between the composer and the musical narrative it is necessary to investigate how the process of composition works. The problem impeding this is the scarcity of information on composer intentions and the compositional process.

Two writers have set out models of how the process operates. Tarasti (2004) outlines a model which includes the concept of:

the implied composer [who] is someone with a certain competence, who provides his musical message with signs that the implied listener can … receive and decode correctly. (Tarasti 2004:300)

I would read this as meaning that this implied composer is not identical to the physical composer.

Sloboda (1985:107/8) refers to musical ideas coming ‘… unbidden …’ to composers, and that ‘… those that please …’ are retained and used. He sets out (Sloboda 1985: 118) a model of the process.

The composer conceives ideas for a piece within the context of their musical knowledge and the constraints on the form of the piece. They develop these into an interim form through the application of their repertoire of compositional devices, and then into the final form of the piece, with a constant process of interaction between their imagination, their technical knowledge, and the constraints on the type of piece required. He considers (Sloboda 1985:121) that there is much evidence that the creative process is largely subconscious, and the composer perceives themselves as a bystander.

As a composer, I would summarise my own process as follows. Working within the context of each new piece, I begin to identify musical ideas, which arrive largely unbidden, but originate in my subconscious through the interaction of the constraints on the nature of the piece, my fund of technical knowledge, and my life experience. I interrogate these ideas, and investigate their potential.

I begin to build these ideas into a longer structure, allowing the musical ideas to grow and develop as seems right, but subject this subconscious process to the scrutiny of musical craftsmanship. The draft is revised, a process which consists of checking whether the piece feels right to me, and which is therefore partly subconscious.

The question therefore concerns the approach the composer takes towards their musical material. Composers of the Baroque and Classical eras did not seek to use their material in a way which suggests the compression into a single work of more experience than could be encountered within the duration of the work. Later composers are commonly seen as doing so.

This sense of the compression of experience leads to the perception of the music as a narrative account. It results from the composer adopting a narrative posture towards the material imagined, a posture which may be subconscious. This appears to me to be the key to the question of the identity of the narrator. This concept of the narrative posture relates closely both to my compositional process and to the models of the process developed by Tarasti (2004) and Sloboda (1985).

5. Conclusion

I have argued that narrativity in music arises from narrative cues in certain music and is communicated through abstract sound. The representational narratives which listeners and scholars create in order to explain their experience or interpretation are evidence of the existence narrativity, but not clear evidence of its nature.

I have concluded that musical narrativity arises from the adoption of a narrative posture by the composer in the creation and use of their musical material.

The question for further research is therefore whether, how and why a composer adopts a narrative posture in writing, and how this affects their choice and use of musical material in a way which leads listeners to experience the music as a narrative in the­ abstract.


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Almén, B. (2003) ‘Narrative Archetypes: A Critique, Theory, and Method of Narrative Analysis’ Journal of MusicTheory 47/1: 1–39

Almén, B. (2008) A Theory of Musical Narrative, Bloomington, Indiana University Press

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Neuberger, J. (1997) ‘Tales of Hoffman and Others: On Narratizations of Instrumental Music’ in: Lagerroth, U.-B., Lund, H., and Hedling, E., (eds.) Interart Poetics: Essays on the Interrelations of the Arts and Media. Amsterdam, Rodopi, 117-136

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Newcomb, (1984) ‘Once More “Between Absolute and Program Music”: Schumann’s Second Symphony’ Nineteen-Century Music 7/3: 233-250

Northrop Frye, H. (1957) Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, New Jersey, Princeton Univ. Press

Ricoeur, P. (1984, 1985, 1988) Time and Narrative (3 Volumes). Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Seaton, D. (2005) ‘Narrative in music: The case of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata’in: Narratology beyond literary criticism: Mediality, Disciplinarity, Meister, J.C.(eds.) Berlin and New York, Walter de Gruyter, 65-81

Sloboda, J. A. (1985) The Musical Mind: The cognitive psychology of music. Oxford, New York; Clarendon Press

Tarasti, E. (2004) ‘Music as a narrative art’ in:Ryan, M-L. (ed.), Narrative across media- the languages of storytelling, Lincoln NE, Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska


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