Form AND STORY: Why you cannot put a story into music.

When I took composing classes with Thomas Trachsel in 2018, he told me to ‘never write stories’. I thought at that time, what he meant was:” never write the sounds of a story in chronological order, because that is not music. You will end up with an emotionless list of events in sound. “

So, I decided to first compose music and add a story afterwards when needed. This worked great with ‘The Weihnachtswolf’. It is a nice way to inspire musicians who need a more visual imaginative aid to understand how to express the music. It is not very important what the story is about, as long as the emotion of the story fits the music.

Using theory of how to develop story-lines as a basis for writing music, has been the topic of many posts, because I thought that would be a helpful tool. It is when it comes to applying energy curves.


What happens when I re-write a text, this time ‘The Shepherd’s boy’ by the Grimm Brothers in a nice structured way and use that as a FORM for my composition?

The storical FORM of ‘Het Herdersjongetje’ as fairy tale by the Grimm Brothers

Now I can SEE the FORM


I can SEE what I always DO

First of all: I give 4 elements of the story their own DNA (=set of 2 – 4 notes). Every element ends up with it’s own piece of music, this causes the usual abrupt chances in my work.

Second: I try to fix that with shared rhythms, binding the DNA’s in a shared melody, repetition of that melody in the FORM.  This makes it a lot of work to finish a composition, because I have to design transitions from one piece of music into a totally different one several times within one composition.

Now I can SEE it is better to work on 4 different developments of 1 DNA, to avoid the usual chaos.

Now I wonder, considering the lessons with Stephen Melillo: I should choose 1 DNA (set of 2 – 4 notes) combined with 1 rhythm as the basis for a wholesome composition. I composed ‘Voor Welmoet’ with 2 rhythms, and it turned out nice. But only a change of rhythm already makes up for a totally different composition.

I should disregard using a story in words as the basis for my musical FORM


Because every single WORD has it’s OWN music:

  1. King (DNA 1, trumpets tatataa (rhythm 1)),
  2. Boy (DNA 2, playfull alto flute (rhythm 2)),
  3. Bird (DNA 3, piccolo, titiriti (rhythm 3),
  4. Eternity ( DNA 4, marimba slow deep (rhythm 4))
  5. Son (DNA 5, soft cymbal, (Silence)) 

How to translate a word-sentence into a music-phrase?

“The King said to the Boy: I do not want my Son to take over. Catch that Bird for me. When you catch the Bird, I will live for Eternity.” 

AND add the emotional energy-curves of the story to that music-phrase as well? 

“The Boy looked at the King, trusting his wisdom. But when he heard the assignment he was devastated, nobody ever saw that Bird. Thinking about this King living for eternity, not his Son taking over, he cried. It was either his own life, or that of the King.” 

“It is the music that brings the emotion.”

It is not the other way around. When you use a story to write music, you use the emotion of the story to write music. We already concluded that this does not work.

Now think of using a funnel….

You can put words into a musical FORM, but that does not automatically mean that you can put notes into a storical FORM. 

When I SEE the storical FORM ‘Herdersjongetje’, 

I do not SEE the musical FORM ‘Art of the State’. 

Story and Music are literally different art FORMS

This explains why:

– Story’s put into music are often ‘literally, chronologically the sounds of the story’ (Brand von Bern, Mario Bürki) or ‘extremely segmented’ (Virginia, J. de Meij)

  • Opera separates telling the story (with music in the background for pulse) and making the emotion (with just music or the help of a song).
  • You can write any story with your music afterwards easily and it will be believed. But not work the other way around.
  • We can easily imagine different stories with the same ballet, but always get the emotion right.
  • I better first write music for my puppet theatre and later write/envision the story of that music. 

SEE how this blog shows my current struggle with FORM?

Now Take 2 on the FORM of ‘Het Herdersjongetje’ is a better way to plan my composition:

  1. I used the Fibonacci numbers for planning important changes in the composition:

2. I choose the form where the new story lines enters at every 8th phrase. Then I connected the outcome with the energy-curve and the orchestration:

It is the first time I am planning ahead this way. Let’s find out if a composition based upon numbers instead of words works better. I will also experiment with:

  • The number of DNA’s (one set of 3 notes) should be just one.
  • The number of rhythms you can add to that DNA. This gives a huge number of musical options.

Given this is music for a mallets percussion group, it will be very nice to offer them a lot of rhythmic variation and learn for myself what rhythm does with DNA. Let’s find out!

By Anneloes Wolters