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July 3, 2015

Music in Stories … Stories in Music (@satiswrites)

by Chris

photo credit: Donna Huber
For those of you not deeply invested in the tech industry, you might not have noticed that Tuesday marked the launch of something rather significant in the world of music: Apple Music. Aimed squarely at the likes of Spotify and Pandora, it gives users access to nearly the entire catalogue of music available on iTunes—some 30 million songs.

I’ve been playing with it for a bit, and as I’ve come to love it, it’s made me think a little about the nature of music. I couldn’t help thinking that a lot of songs—and a lot of albums—aim to tell a story of one kind or another. Whether it’s Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer, or Opeth’s masterpiece album Still Life (look it up—seriously), some of the best music in the world serves to tell a story of one kind or another. One particular album, After Forever’s Invisible Circles, was the formative inspiration for my own long-time work-in-progress, A Gothic Symphony. Its tale of a young girl growing up with neglectful and abusive parents spoke to my own depression-laden childhood, and struck such a chord that I had to write my own version of its story.

In this regard, the unfettered access to millions of songs has given me (and millions of others) the opportunity to discover countless more musical tales. One of my favorite albums, now rediscovered, is Iced Earth’s Horror Show, which covers the gamut of horror movie characters, from Dracula to Damien to the Phantom of the Opera. Another musical story, told across multiple albums by Finnish band Sonata Arctica, tells the tale of a young boy abused by his parents (is there a theme to the music I like here?) who ultimately grows up to murder his father and stalk his mother.

Storytelling has been a part of music since the dawn of human history, tales handed down in the form of song through generations. But what about stories themselves? For something that is such an ingrained part of human nature (every culture in the world plays music of some kind), it isn’t often referenced in the stories we tell themselves. (I’m aware this sounds rather meta—songs about stories about songs.) There are references to it in certain tales; Stephen King is fond of prefacing chapters with quotes from his favorite songs, and indeed Tolkien inserts numerous songs throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But what you end up reading are words, not songs; poetry, stripped of all sonority.

Of course, it isn’t easy to portray music in literature. How can the glorious tones and sweeping melodies translate to black and white text on paper? Even my attempts to bring music into the fictional worlds I create seem to fall flat; I can call it beautiful and haunting, harkening to days of old, but it doesn’t truly do justice to what I hear in my head.

One of the best books I’ve ever read that tries to tackle this troublesome dilemma is The Mozart Season, by Virginia Euwer Wolff (not the Virginia Woolf). It’s the story of a precocious adolescent girl and her relationship with classical music, and in particular Mozart’s violin concertos, which she ends up playing for a competition. Along the way she (perhaps unsurprisingly) learns about herself and her family as well, and if I recall she doesn’t end up winning the competition but comes away a wiser and brighter person. In some ways it’s typical YA fiction, but in others it really tries to explain the music to non-musical folk, and takes serious effort to describe the beauty of the songs. I remember one passage describing the passing of notes on a violin as ‘satiny smooth’.

Music is incredibly important to me, having grown up playing piano and very nearly entering the professional music world as a composer (life managed to get in the way) before finding a path as a writer. I still compose sometimes just for fun, and play piano whenever I can. And I listen to endless music through my computer and on my phone. The stories I discover are marvelous, and fill me with jealously and admiration for the people who’ve managed to successfully combine my own two loves: storytelling and music.

What do you think of stories in music, and music in stories?

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