On Narrative in Media – Focus on Music

I recently wrote a book review of Marie-Lynn Ryan’s “Narrative Across Media” – a solid book that explains how narrative applies to various disciplines. One of its units – Music and Narrative – had essays explaining this very same concept: how narrative exists and is manifested through music. The essays in these chapters state that narrative is present in all aspects of music, including the instrumental arrangements, and that classical pieces tell stories. Authors even pushed the notion that these musical arrangements not only contained a narrative, but also told stories. I’d like to make some remarks (that will probably be considered uneducated hogwash because they are published on a blog, but would be considered a worthwhile academic argument if elaborated on and published on print) on the topic.

Let’s start off by defining “narrative” by a bare minimum of “a series of events that take place in a certain space” and story as the added element of “someone is ‘somehow’ ‘telling’ it”. Allow me to further define ‘somehow’ as “by any means” and ‘telling’ by “sharing in any form, not necessarily through spoken word”. So, a narrative is broadly defined as “stuff happened” and story as “someone is sharing the stuff that happened”. By definition, all stories are narrative. However, not all narratives are stories.  A story must be communicated. A narrative may simply “happen” without anyone recounting it [1]. Now let’s see how these definitions hold up to different manifestations of attempted stories in different media before going on to music.

Printed Texts

And average layman with no studies in literary fields will not hesitate to say that “yeah, books are stories”. In most cases, yes. Novels like Tom Jones are stories. Epics like Lord of the Rings are stories. Romances like Pride and Prejudice are stories. All of these are narratives (Women fall in love, Gandalf casts spells, and Tom Jones breaks the 4th wall doing stuff) that are told by a narrator – the writer. Some theorize that the narrative voice that tells readers “alas, Gandalf is still dead” and “Mr. Darcy saw Elizabeth” are not the writers, but a different narrative voice, and that’s all good and well. Whether you buy into the idea of the narrator as not the writer or not, someone is telling you a narrative. Therefore, they are stories.

Some poems are stories as well. If you recall Blake’s Prophecies on Orc and Urzien you will remember that these poems involve a story that is told through a narrator who could – or could not – be Blake.

is a chemistry textbook a narrative? Not really. There are sections that instruct students on how to create a real-space narrative (first put baking soda into the test tube, then put vinnager into the test tube, then step back), but as the events are not happening in any space – even a fictional one – they are not a narrative in themselves.

So, in short, some books are stories, others have narratives, others tell you how to do narratives, others have nothing to do with stories or narratives.

Visual Media

Just as with the written word, visual images may – or may not – involve a narrative. If you consider the RageFace memes where Derp and Derpina talk and do things like a sir you will have to acknowledge that the images are, indeed, telling a story with whoever put it together as the storyteller. The same is true of comic books – Stan Lee tells the story of whatever superhero you like through the comic book. Some might say “but comic books have words, so it doesn’t count”.  If that’s your opinion you’re free to hold it, as long as you acknowledge that there are plenty of comic books and comic strips that don’t have text and still tell stories, such as this one:

Click here for image (Opens in new window)

Source: http://www.shadowsanctum.net/

What about single images? It gets a bit tricky then. There is no doubt that some paintings do have narratives. If you are able to describe what is going on in the image, then the image has a narrative. Is it also a story? Most of the theorists I’ve read say that yes, paintings do tell stories, and the narrator is the painter (a small number of theorists I’ve read say that the canvas is the narrator).

The Destruction of ‘L’Orient’ at the Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798 by George Arnald (painted circa. 1825-27). Original painting in National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, catalogue number BHC0509.

Yet it is painfully obvious that other paintings don’t have a narrative.

Marevich, Suprematist Composition- White on White 1917

Unless you subscribe to the theory that in the painting depicted above there used t o be a cow eating grass, but it ate all the grass and left, you must acknowledge that there is no narrative in the painting.

And then there’s this:

Kasmir Malevich and Aleksander Rodchenko painted the first famous blank canvases (MONOCHROME) All black and all white paintings
Black Square 1915

And so, some paintings have narrative, others don’t, and depending n who you ask, narrative painting tell stories.

Video Games

I’ll go straight into video games instead of going through the entirety of “digital media technologies” – you can read about that when I put my book out there somewhere (I’ll probably put an e-book version here). So, do video games have narrative? If you ask Espen Aarseth or Jesper Juul they’ll say things like “no, because the video game form can either let the player engage with the game or tell them a story, but never do both at the same time” (paraphrasing Aarseth, who obviously never played Bastion) or “no, because when someone throws a ball at you, you don’t wait for it to tell you a story” (you can thank Jesper Juul for that one). And yet the fact remains that, like books and drawings, some video games tell stories and others don’t.

If you think about Final Fantasy XIII you will notice that whenever you get to a certain point, a narrator tells you what is happening. At the same time, the events on screen are taking place. You are simply controlling some of them. And so, in Final Fantasy XIII there is a narrative (Lightening and party fight a monster, Lightening and party get in the airship, and so on) that is being told by a narrator (Vanille).

Here’s a video with spoilers:

Even in games like the Final Fantasies prior to XIII, where there is no in-game narration, you are still being told a story, and the storyteller is the video game director or producer, or if you buy into the idea that the final product is co-authored by all team members, then the development team is the narrator. Both ideas are just as valid, and if we try to compare them to the film industry it would be like comparing Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride to Miyamoto’s creation Super Mario World (both thought up and conceptualized by a single author but implemented by a team)  and Disney’s Brave to Bethesda’s Skyrim (where the entire development teams share the credit). At any rate, someone is telling you a story. Still, Espen’s argument – if you’re serious about hating narrative in video games – would apply to these games. When the player is controlling the action – fighting monsters, exploring, and buying items – you are not being told a story (although there is clearly a narrative taking place) and when you are being told a story through cut-scenes you are not playing. Sure, this theory completely ignores the fact that while the player controls characters they listen in on conversations that expand the scope of the story, and that all the actions the player makes the characters do form a narrative (first I escaped from Cocoon, then I went to Pulse), but let’s just play along with Aarseth and ignore that as well.

Now think about Bastion.

In Bastion, as the player controls the main character, a narrator says what is happening. And so, when the player defeats a monster the narrator will say “and so the hero bests the challenge before him”, or something to that effect. This completely tears down Aarseth’s and Juuls ideas about anti-narrative in some games, and shows that yes, games can have narrative.

However, not all games have narrative. Some scholars have suggested that Tetris not only has a narrative of “first I put a square block and then I put an L shaped block” (which I would agree is hardly a narrative, and if it is it’s not a very good or relevant one), but that it even tells a story for “the hurried life of metropolitan Americans as told through a Russian perspective” (paraphrasing Janet Murray) or “a story about peasants bowing down to kings” (paraphrasing Gee). That makes no sense. Tetris has no narrative. Sure, through procedurality (Bogost) it can make a point or express an idea, but – honestly – even though Tetris has helped me be amazing at organizing stuff in small spaces, the only learnable message that I’ve ever gotten from Tetris is that small mistakes pile up quickly and great accomplishments vanish in a second.

Seriously tho, in the end, video games can tell stories, but not all of them do.


And so, we finally made it to where I wanted to get: music. Can music tell stories? As it is with other media, some music tell stories, some music doesn’t. Consider your favorite Adelle song. Think about the song. What is the story the song is telling you? It’s probably the story of how Adelle’s heart was broken. Think about your favorite 90s Snoop Doggy Dog song. What is the story it tells you? It’s either the story of how he became a great thug or the story of how he’s a pimp and there are hoes involved somewhere. Think about your favorite country song. If it’s a female singing, you’re probably listening to the story of a broken-hearted woman who wants to forget something and move on, and if you’re listening to a male singing you’re probably listening to the story of how the dude wronged a woman and is saying “I’m sorry”. So yeah, music can tell stories through lyrics. “But Quijano!” – I hear you say – “Lyrics are oral / written devices! Of course they tell stories! What about the music arrangement itself?”

The music scholars represented in Ryan’s book will say “yes”, I will argue otherwise.

Here’s the thing: for something to be a narrative, it should be able to conjure up a narrative in the mind of the viewer. The text itself should tell the reader “first this, then that”, or at the very least the text should make the reader think “first this, then that”.

If you go back and look at the image I posted above now, it’s likely that you will think of the same narrative that you originally thought when you went by it, and it’s probably something like this:

“The two boats in the image were having a sea battle, the one on the right won, and the people from the boat on the left are escaping.”

If you go back to Bastion, you’ll see you’re being told a narrative, but it is worth noting that games can also make narratives without text. Consider a game like Limbo.

In Limbo, players take control of a character. The character runs to the right, jumps some obstacles, pushes a boat through a pond, fights a giant spider, jumps down some drains, and finds his Beatrice.

But now listen to an instrumental song with your eyes closed. Here, check out Chopin’s Revolutionary Iturde.

What narrative is it telling you?  If you know about the context it was composed, it’s telling you a story about Poland during the second world war. If you’re played Eternal Sonata instead, it’s probably telling you the story of Chopin’s last dream as he lay on his deathbed – a purely fictional narrative. But maybe you don’t know anything about that, and this song really just reminds you of that one impossible to beat boss from King of Fighters 200X. Or maybe it just reminds you of DDR Max 2. Maybe, as theorists would suggest, the song invokes in your mind images of warfare. But maybe it invokes fear. What this song invokes in listeners depends on their individual life experiences. The most stalwart theorists will say that those images invoked in our minds are the stories that the music tell, but that’s not really the case. Instrumental music can most certainly invoke emotions and memories. It can even remind us of narratives that have taken place. However, the music itself is not the story nor the narrative. The music is – at best – a gateway to the narratives that the individual listener holds. In short, it’s not telling you a story – it’s reminding you that you know a story.

Now, by no means take my word as the final authority on the topic of narrative and music. While I do study narrative, I study it predominantly in the contexts of oral, print, and digital texts. My knowledge of narrative as applied to music does not go beyond five chapters and three articles. That was enough for me to make certain of what I thought after reading the first chapter I encountered on the topic – that musico-narrativists are grasping at non-existing straws [It’s funny but I’m sure Espen would say the same of digital media narrativists]. And there is always the possibility that I might read a solid argument somewhere and be persuaded the other way. However, that seems doubtful.

As it stands, music can tell stories through lyrics, but not through musical arrangements. those simply evoke emotions or stories that we learned through other means. To say that musical scores are narratives by their own providence – it seems to me – is not only misleading, but also a stretching out of ideas and a misuse of intellectual resources that could be used to do something more field-relevant (like develop a theory of remix dissonance or whatever is cool now-a-days).

At any rate, cue the hate mail from musical narrativists.

[1] Not all theorists agree with this interpretation – many see story and narrative as synonyms – , and I’m not sure that I agree with it either (I guess it depends on whether I need to make the distinction), but for this piece let’s make that distinction.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on June 30, 2012, in Literature Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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