What Music Can Teach Us About Storytelling

My wife and I stopped at a local music festival on our way home from shopping yesterday.  On a makeshift stage, five weathered men sang Eagles tunes in Hawaiian shirts, and couples took to the street dancing.  We sat on the sidewalk, and I listened to the music, every verse, chorus, and bridge.  It was the story of summer, and it was available to anyone with an ear.

It struck me how musicians use musical devices to convey the elements of storytelling.  I play in a local band too, and obvious as it may be, I never made the connection between music and storytelling until last night.  You can’t just listen to “Lyin’ Eyes” and not be transported to another place.  Contemporary music is a model for storytelling, maybe one of the best we have.

The Rhythm.

Every band member played together.  It was more than reading notes from a page; there was a connectedness in every beat.  When the bassist plucked, the drummer stomped the kick drum, the guitarist snapped a soaring riff, and the vocalist belted a line in perfect synchrony.  The music was felt and not just heard by the assembled crowd.

In writing, every sentence and paragraph builds toward a collective melody.  Although a missed beat is noticeable in music, more so is a wrong beat.  A story’s characters, theme, setting, and plot should move in tandem so the reader can dance and not lose balance.  The difference between an average story and a noteworthy story is one of agreeable rhythm.

The Verse.

The music of each song began with a repeating melody, a building lyric that established the premise of the story.  Each verse of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” did just as the song title prescribed; it settled and focused the audience.  The driving rhythm became mellow, and the vocalists sang softer with less harmony and more stabbing, pointed lyrics.

A story cannot live in ‘high thrills.’  There must be exposition time, setting time, inner-monologue time.  These elements make the climax more enticing for the reader; it gives readers a reason to care.  If a fisherman is to catch a fish, a hook will never do without a line.  Like music, the hook brings crowds to attention, but the line (the verse) positions the hook where it needs to be.

The Chorus.

The audience huddled, they whispered, and they crowded.  When the band hit the first lick of “Take It to the Limit,” everyone knew where the mood was shifting.  Every verse built toward the chorus, and every mouth readied to proclaim the hook with anticipated satisfaction.  Even the band smiled when the moment approached, the music growing toward a resounding delivery.

In storytelling, the chorus is a repeated conflict, characterization, or plot element.  Its energy rewards the reader for his/her ongoing investment in the story.  Writers can leverage the repeated impact of conflict, characterization, and plot to fuel the rising action of lyrical tension.  Consistent striking of a reader’s nerve will invariably lead to a mind positioned for what happens next.

The Bridge.

The band shouted, and the crowd echoed; the band sang in falsetto, and the crowd danced the concrete harder; the band drove the rhythm raw, and the crowd lifted their hands in satisfied applause.  The bridge of “Take It to the Limit” was nothing more than a repetition of the chorus, but it was somehow more involved, somehow more intense and sensational.  Everyone knew it too.

The bridge of a song is the climax of a story.  In writing fiction, this is the moment when every drop in the bucket overflows onto the reader’s face.  It’s the moment when your bullied hero stands, your oppressed people rebel, your unabashed dreamer resolves to do more than imagine.  It’s the moment the reluctant dancer throws caution aside and shimmies into the twisting fray.

The Finale.

There is resolution to a song like there is resolution to a story.  Writers can learn much from what is thought to already be known.  I’ve listened to and played music all my life, but its connection to storytelling never hit me until I started listening with a different ear.  I listened with the ear of a writer, and in doing so, I found a story where none had been before.  I found a story made of music itself.