The Brief History of Music Storytelling

July 31, 2018


If I asked you to hum your favorite soundtrack tune, chances are you could probably do it in a heartbeat. Among some general favorites are "Forrest Gump", "Star Wars", "E.T". "Lord of The Rings", "Cinema Paradiso" etc. One surprising thing I've observed when speaking to both musicians and general public alike is that most of what we can recall from our memory banks are from older works(pretty much pre-2005)...with the rare exception with the music of "Game of Thrones" by Ramin Djawadi. When asked if they could recall anything memorable from more recent works, they'd start putting their brains into overdrive just to think of something remotely memorable. I'm not sure if this is good or bad news, but it's definitely something worth looking into to understand what this means and for the future of musical storytelling.


If we looked at music history as a whole, be it classical, pop, soundtrack, ancient hymns, folk etc, music in the later part of the 20th century began to take a much radically different approach than its predecessors.


Music, just like any other facets of culture such as literature, religion, history, myths, legends and art all have one thing in common since time immemorial: Storytelling. The moment when the storytelling function begins to wane, it loses its grip on people's attention and lasting power. Ever imagined how some stories from thousands of years ago lasted till this day? Answer is - Good story with good storytelling.


Back in a time where information sources were impossibly out of reach for the common folk, storytelling becomes a very central element in the everyday life of our species to keeping ourselves entertained and simply being human. Storytelling in every shape and form serves to impart information, excite our imagination, spurs our creative thought and fulfills one of the most important element that makes up the human experience, and separates us from every other species: The need for symbolic thought.


Symbolic thought in its simplest explanation is the ability to think beyond the here and now. Without risking sounding like a bona fide evolutionary biologist/psychologist, this ability is what gives us the capacity to imagine; thus our subconscious crave for good storytelling in all shapes and forms and allows us to retain the information for future retelling, embellishments and create new stories of our own.


Below is a cave painting dated as early as 30-40,000 years ago. This may look like amateur scribbling to our modern artistic senses, but back in those days, this was revolutionary. This in itself is the telling of an epic story from our primitive ancestors.






The primary difference between verbal/written and musical storytelling is that not everyone is "music literate" - As in, most people know how to enjoy music and feel what the music intends to convey, but can't analyze it as accurately as they do with written language. In this day and age, about 86.3% of the global population are considered to be literate. Which means as long as we have a decent level of linguistic knowledge, chances of miscommunication be it verbal or written are low...with some exceptions of course - Like cryptic text and the ever so confusing language of mobile texting.


Music, however, is a partially open ended proposition. Due to low music literacy, most people would have different interpretations when it comes to music. For instrumental music without visual references, most would resort to their emotional processing faculties coupled with their personal history, circumstances and experiences to determine what the "story" of the music is about. This isn't a bad thing at all, if anything, it opens up a whole new creative paradigm, allowing listeners to have their very own personal experiences with music.


Throughout our history(pre and post recorded), music storytelling has been present and evolved through many shapes and forms. According to archeological findings it's possible it began as early as 43,000 years ago with the findings of primitive flutes made of ivory. No one knew for sure what they might've played, except for speculative attempts by analyzing the pitches available and the possible variants. But it's exciting to see that humans were able to express themselves beyond the extent of their vocal cords so far back in time. This form of expression is still no different with present day musicians who with their instruments acting as an extension of their physical capabilities.


Music storytelling hasn't changed as dramatically as it did in the past 100 years or so. Thanks to rapid advancements in technology, information access/exchange, new political/social/cultural revolutions and movements etc. The most obvious change is that of the visual arts. Comparing a 19th century painting and a 20th century one, one could hardly fathom how it went from one to the next. Similarly, this artistic "revolution" wasn't confined to just the visual arts.


Prominent 20th century composers like Arnold Schoenberg's 12 tone row and John Cage's "4'33" totally revolutionized the idea of musical expression and thus challenging the traditional notion of musical storytelling. Unlike medieval hymns, classical concertos, ancient chorales or operas which has distinctive structures that allows the listener to distinguish different elements such as melodic themes, variations, forms etc - Much like how most written stories are formulated. Present day "serious" composers are seemingly working in the direction of challenging convention and reinventing what has led music to what it is today. In the realm of creative expression, I firmly believe in that there's no "right" or "wrong", and that the only constant is change.


It'll be interesting to see where the direction of music storytelling will go in the future, if it'll stray further away from its traditional roots or will it somehow return to it after a brief stint of abstract experimentations as we do now in the 20th/21st century. These days, we see progressive music artists drifting further and further away from the traditional notion of music expressionism. Instead of expressing with pitches the same way a western classically trained musician would, they would manipulate the pitches in ways that goes in direct contradiction with how musicians have done for hundreds of years prior.


But one thing is for sure is that no matter where it ends up, and if we can even recognize the musical storytelling methods far in the future. One thing for sure is that as long as humans still retain our primary cognitive abilities, there's going to be a need for stories to be told.

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