Music may have originally developed for the purpose of communication, and it has become a powerful tool in the telling of stories. Over the next four chapters, we will explore ways in which music has been used to convey, enhance, or transform stories in a variety of cultural contexts.
Most storytellers use music with great care. They do so because it is powerful. Music can help to set the mood in a video game, or allow a character on stage to express emotion by singing, or add interest and gravity to the recitation of an epic poem. It can encourage an audience member to get more involved in a performance, either emotionally or by joining in with the music-making. It can help a listener to remember the words to a story. And it can “say” things that go beyond words and images.
Music is used to tell stories in many different ways. Sometimes it accompanies images, such as in a film. Sometimes it is combined with stage action, as in ballets and musicals. Sometimes it is paired with a text, which might be sung or provided to the listener to read. Of course, we can choose to hear a story in any piece of music, and we will encounter examples later in this book that seem as if they must be communicating something, even if we can’t say exactly what it is. In the next four chapters, however, we will examine pieces of music that are used to tell clearly defined stories, and we will focus on understanding how music enriches and impacts those stories.
- 3.2: John Williams - Star Wars
- You probably already have a wealth of associations with the Star Wars soundtrack—both personal and general—as a result of having watched these films. On the personal level, you might find that this music evokes nostalgic memories of watching Star Wars with your family as a child, or it might make you uncomfortable if you found the films particularly scary or sad. Here, we will focus on objective characteristics of the music that help us to explain how it enhances the story.
- 3.3: Richard Wagner - The Valkyrie
- Most operas employ an orchestra to accompany the stage performers, who often sing throughout. While Richard Wagner’s style and melodies certainly influenced Williams’s work, we will focus here on Williams’s use of a technique that Wagner perfected: the technique of assigning a unique theme to each character, object, place, and idea in a drama. Wagner called such a theme a leitmotif.
- 3.6: Ragtime and Dixieland Jazz
- We will consider one more of Williams’s borrowings. This time, however, we will be giving primary consideration to style, for Williams was influenced by a pair of musical traditions—specifically, those of ragtime and Dixieland jazz—rather than by a specific composition. Before we can examine the borrowing, however, we need to take a step back and consider the different ways in which music works in film.