Form: Story-telling structures in Music

When I started to write music, I decided to first work horizontally: harmonics, overtone-series, instrumentation. That kind of stuff. But of course I did need something to put the music I was writing in a time based structure. So I took the one I knew best: Traditional story-telling form. I had been studying that because it is my dream to write a musical puppet-theatre, so I thought, let’s use that and see where it takes me.

Pict. 1 Traditional story telling structure I used to compose ‘Gulden Sporen’. (Golden Tracks)

As you can see, I composed a theme for every character and that theme developed for every scene the character was in. I ended up with some nice fragments, but there was no unity in the music. It sounded like this:

Gulden Sporen, composed using the scheme you see in pict. 1

So I thought, I must first learn more about songs, because they are short over time and modern songwriters use these schemes for their music that work great. So I read ‘The addiction Formula’ by G. Friedmann. This is what he teaches:

Pict.2 Scheme of the ‘addiction formula’ for song-writers.

So now I decided to write 1 climax in the whole piece, because than the whole composition might work up to that moment. And I liked the idea of a drop before the final climax at the end. The contrast in dynamics would make the final climax even more dramatic.

For my next piece ‘The Weihnachtswolf’, I decided to narrow the number of characters down to 1. So I would only have to develop 1 theme over the course of this time-curve.

Since I could not really imagine a story based upon the time-line of the addiction formula, I added ‘the anatomy of story’ to the mix. It is a book film-writers use to come up with a good script. I thought, they work with images over time and in a way I do that also, imagining the pictures of music over time . So I decided to add ‘the anatomy of story to the energy curve of the addiction formula.

Energy curve of the addiction formula combined with the story-structure by John Truby.

As you can see, a lot is happening over time with the character. But you can be sure your music will not be boring. This is what that sounded like:

Midi file ‘Der Weihnachtswolf’

As you can hear, there was a little more unity to this piece. It also had a beginning and an ending. That was new, I liked it. After this I decided to work differently and first sing the theme and record it. Then use the energy-curve of the addiction formula without all the story-telling elements and develop 1 heroic theme. To find out what was the problem with my lack of unity, I decided to write for just 1 instrument, so I wrote for trombone-choir. This is how ‘Willem de Zwijger’ was written.

Here is how that sounds:

Willem de Zwijger for trombone-choir

As you can hear this is an agreeable composition, but the lack of unity in the composition is made of the unity of orchestration.

Read more about getting more unity in form: ‘Form: The Necklace and the State of the Building.’

Find out more about using the ‘State of the Art’ -scheme

A different choice would be to work within a whole different form, as described in ‘The Art of the State’ by Stephen Melillo. Below you see a part of that structure, I highlighted the two energy-forces used in this scheme with black and white:

Part of the scheme ‘Art of the State’

Then I drew the energy-curve I designed by combining the anatomy of story with the addiction formula in green and the energy-curve from the State of the Art (in extremes black and white) on top of that:

Blue: energy-curve of ‘State of the Art’, green energy-curve of ‘anatomy of story+addiction formula’.

As you can see, there is an overlap in time, where the energetic lows and highs are placed. The musical design of ‘State of the Art’ is of course very extreme because I only choose black and white. But you can see that there are similarities in the energy-curves.

By Anneloes Wolters


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