NARRATIVE STRUCTURE IN COMPOSITION (PART B)

In the previous article I discussed how my own personal approach to thinking about music has developed from a very technical and theoretical viewpoint to looking on the development of the piece from a more abstracted point of view.


I gave this statement as a broad summarisation:

Considering any musical piece as how the musical landscape or ‘progression’ of the piece changes or redefines the nature of its ‘protagonists’ -- its musical motives.


The statement isolates two points of specific importance:


Protagonists & Progression


These two concepts can be abstracted into and out of specific musical terminology, across artistic borders and lifted into whatever context is useful. Here’s a few more of the first music related variations that come to mind:


Content & Context

Motives & Resolution

Melody & Harmony


To me, in a conceptual manner this represents the idea itself as well as how the idea is defined in terms of the context and frame that it is presented in. The one undefined element here (at least in terms of music) is the passage of time. Without the passage of time, music can’t exist (or if it can, I’d love to discuss how, please leave a comment!). With consideration to this thought, I’ll abstract the two concepts a little more:


Intention & Transformation

Expectation & Surprise

Tension & Release


As a passing note -- it’s at this moment that I start to want to go off on a wild tangent into Category Theory and start talking about Functors, Monoids, Natural Transformations and many other big school words which initially seem designed so that nobody can understand them! That’ll all come later in good time, when I get to writing about my long term ‘Harmonic Algorithm’ project!


Back to the topic at hand..


Along the road, I’ve read quite a few documents and books on music and music analysis as well as taken wisdom from colleagues and mentors where I can. One such ‘insight’ that stuck with me (I recall overhearing it being uttered by an irate tutor during my studies as a music undergrad) was the assertion that playing the right notes at the right time is the absolute minimum standard required to constitute ‘music’. This may be an oversimplification in the wider definition of music, but it gave me an interesting avenue of thought that grew with me for a long time -- The aspects of music that we spend the most time on and place at the highest importance in are actually the least important aspects of music. These aspects are still important of course but simply as necessary prerequisites for more subjectively nuanced elements such as expression and form. While the absoluteness of that statement is certainly up for debate, it sent me down a significant stream of thought.


Until this point, the literature that I’d studied (I’ll mention my favourites later in this paragraph) had been mainly technical based theoretical texts on Harmony and Melody. I made a distinct change of direction at this point into searching for knowledge and insight in a wider variety of places. A great (still music focussed) paper to read as a lead in to a more ‘subjective’ style of musical thinking can be found here: http://alanbelkinmusic.com/bk/F.pdf. My favourite books on Harmony and Melody include Mark Levine’s ‘The Jazz Theory Book’, ‘Melody In Songwriting’ from the Berklee Press series, ‘Jazzology: The Encyclopedia of Jazz Theory for All Musicians’ by Rawlins and Bahha and the extremely cryptic yet fascinating ‘Encyclopedia of Scales & Melodic Patterns’ by Nicolas Slonimsky.


Considering the stream of thought we’ve explored above, I feel then that this is a very valid if almost blindingly obvious mental framework to consider music under. Abstraction is fun, but from here the more interesting and useful question would be how we can use this insight to broaden our skillset as a creator and/or to grant a greater degree for richness of interpretation to any participant in or observer of art.


The whole process described above lead me to a question:

How can I pragmatically develop these ‘extended’ areas of musicality inside a theoretically sound mental framework? (never try to outrun your very nature!)


How I answered that question was to look to other artforms for formalised theory structures in other artistic practices. If we look back at the duology of terms that was established earlier:


We got built a link from here:

Protagonists & Progression

To here:

Tension & Release


Let’s rotate this to think about it in a slightly different way:

Tension -> Protagonists

Release -> Progression


This is a Functor! (it's still too early for Functors..)


The important point to note is that it logically describes a relationship between very fundamental concepts in both music/music analysis and narrative form. That seems like a great place to start looking for cross-practice insight!


I actually wouldn’t say it’s a 100% conceptual match, but it does give us a very clear and workable link to narrative structure. Narrative structure provides us with a very well developed field from which concepts can be abstracted back into music in a way that allows us to describe and reason about otherwise very subjective elements of composition (lots of Functional Programming terms creeping in here.. Could it be foreshadowing?).


In this article, we’ve discussed potential parallels between musical composition and narrative structure. I happen to have a lot of illegible sketching and many notes scrawled in notepads on this topic! In my next post, I will present and discuss the direct parallels of my interpretation for the ‘Hero’s Journey’ narrative structure into musical form.