Whose Story Gets Told Through Music?

Colter George and Eric Kennedy

Music is perhaps the most beautiful art form known to man. It emulates emotion, synthesizes feeling, stimulates the mind and symbolizes life. Music has been sung, played and listened to since before the invention of written history; it has allowed stories to be passed down generation after generation, person to person. But whose story gets told?

Modern music has evolved through the innovation of few over the last century. It found roots in classical music and evolved into early pop songs, spawning ragtime, big band, jazz and blues. Eventually, country and blues gave birth to what we know today as Rock 'n' Roll, the single most influential art form of the last half-century; it allowed a rebellious generation of youth to express themselves, giving rise to a cultural revolution. Today, there are myriad forms of rock alone, along with other pop genres: hip-hop, drum & bass, dubstep, alternative, indie, electronic and countless others, as evidenced by the flow chart below.


Each genre has its own poetic style, generating lyrics unique to the artists in each genre. Rock has traditionally used lyrics about drugs and love. Hip-hop uses rap; lyrics often discuss violence, misogyny, drugs, guns, or an artist's dominance over the rap game and "spittin dope rhymes" as well as "laying down dirty beats". Both styles often make distinct use of abstract imagery and highly interpretive language. Yet other genres have no vocals or lyrics at all. Take dubstep, for example. Although there are no real words, it still tells a story usually along these lines: boy meets girl, boy grinds on girl. Other instrumental music relies on melody, harmony, tonality and rhythm to tell stories. The movie Fantasia is a prime example of this. Disney gave visual representations to classics like Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite", Mozart's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy", Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and Beethoven's "Symphony No. 6". In many of the songs, Disney took considerable liberties in creating (stunning) visual representations.

Consider the following film segment from Fantasia:

Here, a full orchestra tells the story of the plight of a Stegosaurus. After watching, it seems nearly impossible that the video was made to retrofit the music; bear in mind that Igor Stravinsky was (in all likelihood) not thinking about dinosaurs when he wrote "Rite of Spring". In this case, both the Tyrannosaurus Rex's story of hunting and the Stegosaurus' story of being hunted are given equal expression. Recall that the thunderous "DA DA DA" of doom (played by a tuba here) signaling the Stegosaurus' death is immediately followed by several measures of victorious music, to symbolize the triumph of the T. Rex.

However, this example only tells the story from the listener's/viewer's perspective. We see the dinosaurs fighting and hear the crashing notes from the symphony and are satisfied by the storytelling. Yet how are we to know what Igor Stravinsky's original intention of the music was? the full piece, "Rite of Spring" is over 34 minutes long. Given its name, perhaps he was inspired the natural beauty of spring. I, for one, believe that the segment playing during the dino-fight could very well have been meant to illustrate musically a late spring thunderstorm.

Thus, there are two fundamental ways a story can be told and interpreted through music: from the author's, composer's, writer's, singer's or player's perspective; or the audience's perspective.

Take for example the following music video for Kanye West's song, "Touch the Sky (ft. Lupe Fiasco)". West is known for assuming a major part in production of his videos, so it is fair to assume that the story we are told through the video is largely the same as the story Kanye is telling. He goes to extra lengths to add a humorous intermission of sorts complete with his trademark teddy bear, just to better tell the story of tension between Kanye and his lover because of his risky career as "Evel Kanyevel". I especially enjoy this song for its excellent sample of Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up", whose brass section adds depth to the song and in turn, the story it tells.

Conversely, there are likely hundreds of artists who hear their song on the radio and are infuriated by the public's misinterpretation of their music. This happened famously in 1964 to Portland rock group The Kingsmen and their song, "Louie Louie" (which is now a staple for pep bands). The original lyrics were written by Richard Barry in 1955 about a sailor yearning for his lover on land. Yet the singer of The Kingsmen, Jack Ely, was only 16 years old and wearing braces when the song was recorded. As a result, the words were badly garbled and subsequently rumored to be obscene. These rumors eventually caused the FBI to investigate, although no legal recourse was taken. In cases like this, the writer's intent is separate from the audience's, but we are aware of both due to publicity. In fact, both the obscene lyrics and original lyrics can be found online.

Besides a story's perspective, the subject of the story remains. The song at left, Wiz Khalifa's "Know Your Name" was released less than two months ago, while The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil", at right, was released more than forty years ago. They are prime examples of their respective genres of hip-hop and rock, and yet they are both characteristically rare in that both are written in the second person. Still, both tell completely different stories. Wiz Khalifa raps and sings about "you" reaching stardom; Mick Jagger sings from the point of view of the Devil. Both are excellent songs, and demonstrate another important point.

Musical stories can be told in the first, second, or third person, and can have myriad different subjects.

Songs can be about men, women, you, me, historical figures or fictional characters. Artists often refer to themselves in the third person, or tell a story about themselves through different characters, such as rapper T.I.'s alter ego character, T.I.P., or Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon", which is about band member Christine McVie. Oftentimes, rappers will rap about themselves, professing their skill at rapping and putting down their rivals, all through first person. Almost every rapper has a song like this, but perhaps the most braggart of these is Tech N9NE's "Midwest Choppers 2".

Some songs are fictional and mystical, like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven", while some document historical happenings. For example, Seattle rap duo Blue Scholars made a song called "50K Deep" inspired by the so-called "Battle in Seattle" in which a massive protest against globalization and a widening socioeconomic gap took to the streets of downtown Seattle to prevent a WTO meeting on November 30, 1999.

But what about songs with no lyrics? As demonstrated earlier, classical music still tells wonderful stories. Similarly, classic rock has many only-instrumental songs. Eric Johnson's "Cliffs of Dover" (second link below) is a powerful guitar-based piece that I find to be wildly epic, taking the listener on an airborne journey across the Atlantic Ocean, and like the name suggests, to the steep and majestic White Cliffs of Dover on the southeast coastline of England. Today, a popular group among young adults is Ratatat. Their infectious instrumentals are a blend of electronic and rock somewhat akin to popular dance styles like dubstep or house. My personal favorite Ratatat song (for obvious reasons) is entitled "Kennedy" from the album Classics (directly below). While no distinct storylines present themselves through listening, I often imagine myself in Las Vegas while this song is playing. This is largely due to the song's underlying beat and its hard, edgy melody. This gives us a third criteria of musical storytelling:

Stories in music can be told without lyrics. Melody, harmony, timing and tonality play a major role in tone, and thereby affect a story being told through instrumentation.

Melancholy songs tend to tell sad or mellow stories, like during the piano solo in the latter half of Eric Clapton's "Layla", due to the minor-key tonality of the song. Major-key tonality is used in energetic and positive songs to promote happy feelings. Slow songs may put the listener in a sleepy daze, while fast songs may result in wild dancing.

Finally, songs can be impacted by non-musical components. Visual components especially contribute to the audience's overall interpretation of a piece of music. Also of vital importance is the name of the song. As evidenced earlier, my opinion of "Cliffs of Dover" was influence by its name. Besides music videos, visuals can have even more of an impact, though. Consider the following examples of album art:

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Blue Oyster Cult's Best Of album gives the the entire work a spooky, mythical tone, just because of the inclusion of the Grim Reaper on the cover.

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Pink Floyd's famous Dark Side of the Moon encourages the audience to broaden their minds in preparation for the psychedelic music to follow this album cover.

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Modest Mouse is known for their abstract lyrics, paradoxic album names and bizarre album artwork. This is best exemplified by their EP Building Something Out of Nothing.

Thus, visual aspects of music, like videos and album artwork add to or change the interpretation of a story as much as a song's name, and often influence the audience more than the actual music does.

There are also many examples of music and their stories in Chinua Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart, as evidenced below in multitude:

“He was tall and very thin and had a slight stoop. He wore a haggard and mournful look except when he was drinking or playing on his flute. He was very good on his flute, and his happiest moments were the two or three moons after the harvest when the village musicians brought down their instruments, hung above the fireplace. Unoka would play with them, his face beaming with blessedness and peace. Sometimes another village would ask Unoka’s band and their dancing egwugwu to come and stay with them and teach them their tunes” (Achebe 4).

This passage shows how music is an experience for both the listener and the performers. Unoka was only happy when he was drunk, his mind drifting further and further from reality, or when he was playing his flute. It is evidence that music has the power to make those who create it happy. Musicians meld their thoughts and ideas with lyrics and instrumentals to tell a story that transcends just words and adds raw emotion through their costumes, vocal fluctuations, story message, etc. It is with the aid of these elements that musicians can tell any story they wish and ideally make even a story about an event such as seeing a handsome/beautiful man/woman as interesting as possible.

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"GO-DI-DI-GO-GO-DI-GO. DI-GO-GO-DI-GO. It was the ekwe talking to the clan. One of the things every man learned was the language of the hollowed-out wooden instrument. Diim! Diim! Diim! boomed the cannon at intervals" (Achebe 72).

The importance of music cannot be underestimated. In this scenario, a messenger goes to each of the 9 villages beating his wooden drum, signifying that a meeting was to be held early the following morning. Music was so prominent in the villages that even though the beating of the drum could have meant anything, most of the tribes people knew that a death had occurred. It allowed people to communicate and tell their day to day stories through song. In today's society, music often conveys messages that are no where near the importance of the messages of the past. Violence, drugs, sex, and countless other messages are transmitted through music today and have now become commonplace and the status quo. It is important for younger generations to remember that there was once a time when musicians were truly thoughtful and they produced songs with life lessons and included moral actions. The zeitgeist of today is much different than that of yesteryear; As a member of today's youth, many of us wonder whether those around us will ever realize that there is more to life than the indulgences and privileges of being an adolescent. We have faith that our majority will blossom into a lotus of knowledge that will move the world forward once again. But there will always be those among us who will never display their inner beauty, and will thus never rise from the swamp.

(Left) Lotus rising from the swamp. (Right) An Ekwe.

"As they cut grass in the morning the younger men sang in time with the strokes of their machetes:
Kotma of the ash buttocks,
He is fit to be a slave.
The white man has no sense,
He is fit to be a slave" (Achebe 107).

Something that has remained true in music for generations is that fact that it has been used to pass the time. Back in the good 'ol days the men would sing as they worked in the fields (as displayed in the passage above) and the women would sing as they went through their daily chores ranging from gathering water, to cooking, to sewing, and much more. Today most cars are equipped with at least a CD or tape player and a vast number of Americans and of those living in developed countries are enchanted by the invention known as the ipod. It is safe to say that music has become part of human nature if it was not a part of it before and people will only continue to include music as part of their lives. Music has told many stories about hard work and labor, including "Cleaning Windows" by Van Morrison:

"At last the two drum teams danced into the circle and the crowd roared and clapped. The drums rose to a frenzy. The people surged forward. The young men who kept order flew around, waving their palm fronds. Old men nodded to the beat of the drums and remembered the days when they wrestled to its intoxicating rhythm" (Achebe 29).

Music has the power to make transformations. Its messages can help change personal philosophies, its creation can build life-long friendships and bonds, and the presence of music can take a melancholy gathering and morph it into a memorable moment. In the passage above, the drummers rhythm helps allow the wrestlers preform at their highest level by putting them in a competitive state of mind, thus allowing the wrestlers to express their life stories and hard work through their physical abilities. So, not only does music tell its own stories, but it also helps others to tell theirs.

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"Then he tried to settle the the way he used to settle matters when he was a little boy. He still remembered the song:
Eze elina, elina!
Eze ilikwa ya
IKwaba akwa oligholi
Ebe Danda nechi eze
Ebe Uzuzu nete egwu
He sang it in his mind, and walked to its beat" (Achebe 36).

When it comes to easing the mind, music can be a vital tool. For centuries there have been songs for just about every experience imaginable and this has only been compounded by the technology available today. Relationships, family matters, political issues, personal experiences, and so forth have all been articulated through music; Thus, when someone is going through a stage in their life and they come across a song that is similar to what they are experiencing it can create feelings of joy, sorrow, acceptance, or help someone cope with an issue; Or, as in Ikemefuna's case, songs can be a distraction. In a sense, music can help a person tell their own story to oneself. Music can distract people from issues at hand or simply pass the time, but even the creation of rudimentary songs for the "viewing" by oneself is beneficial, as it alleviates boredom and stress and acts as a positive channel for one's thoughts.

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Works Cited:

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart . 1st. Glencoe/McGraw-Hill,
1959. 4, 29, 36,72,107. Print.

"All for Laughs." The Inspire Word . Web. 12 Dec 2010.
< http://wordsbymarisa.blogspot.com/2008_12_01_archive .

"Beautiful Girl is Sitting in the Cafe and Drinking Coffee."
www.123rf.com . Web. 12 Dec 2010.
< http://www.123rf.com/photo_4270707_beautiful-girl-is

"Ekwe." Ekwe Drums . Web. 12 Dec 2010.
< http://www.motherlandmusic.com/ekwedrums.htm >.

"FBS fauxhawk." Weekly Waste . Web. 12 Dec 2010.
< http://www.slyrecords.com/weeklywaste223.html >.

"Reports from the field: Burundi Update." NTD Advocate . Web.
12 Dec 2010.
< http://support.sabin.org/site/PageNavigator/Gn_Newslett

"Van Morrison - Cleaning Windows - live 2006." Van Morrison
- Cleaning Windows - live 2006 . Web. 12 Dec 2010.
- < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jsvu55mnU-A >.

"Water Lily or Lotus." Inspiration & True Tales on the Trail of
Good Fortune . Web. 12 Dec 2010. < http://www.quick-

"Zoot Suit for Sale." Mens Italy . Web. 12 Dec 2010.
< http://www.mensitaly.com/Zoot-suit-for-sale/Zoot-suit-

Other Sources:


Eric Kennedy's personal music collection
"20th Century Music Timeline" by Eric Kennedy