Storytelling Theory vs. Music Theory, by Steve Steuart

The following is a guest article by Steve Steuart. 

(Picking up from the post, which appears HERE.)

 A story has a beginning a middle and an end and like the story, a song also has a beginning a middle and an end. Brilliant!

In classical music they use the terms Exposition (not to be confused with its coincidental use as a writing term although they do still kind of mean the same thing but in a different way), Development and Recapitulation. These are more specifically used in describing the structure of a sonata but the general structure is essential to any music that’s going to be considered pleasing. These coincide with all the parts of story structure whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay. Act I, Act II, Act III are the same as Part 1 (Set up), Part 2 and 3 (Response and Attack), Part 4 (Resolution). Exposition, Development, Recapitulation.

Exposition gets the ball rolling, it let’s you in on the musical world you’re about to experience. It sets up a mood and a situation for change. In a story we learn about the hero and receive hints of the major conflict to come. Development is where all the changes occur, changes in key, tempo and time. In a story, this is the part where our hero’s world is turned upside down. Recapitulation is the end where everything is resolved and brought together harmoniously and concluded. Usually it’s a revisit to the beginning with changes in the chord structure or melody which makes it the same, but different. In the story our hero has gone through the process of character arc. Same person, but different. Within the three act structure or four part novel structure are the essential elements that comprise the qualities of change in a story. They all have relative essential elements in music. Modulation, Syncopation and Dissonance are the three that stand out to me. These are very common terms in music theory and they encompass a wide range of possibilities in their execution in a song. Far too many to be completely comprehensive here and frankly, over my head. Let’s keep it simple.

Modulation relates to a change in key. In classical music it’s like a fresh new look at the song, a new beginning. In a story it’s the transition from Act I to Act II, or the set up and response. The chord that finally forces that change in key, is the same as the inciting incident, or first plot point. It’s the same story but it’s playing out with a new perspective. As a story (song) moves along (with other modulations or pinch points) toward the inevitable final change, we get another glimpse back at the beginning with that defining last change. In general a screenplay or novel is building to a crescendo that we all expect and when we arrive at that final sequence where everything will be resolved, a change occurs that feels different, yet familiar. A change back to the key of origin in composed music. In our story, our hero carries with him, the weight of experience and acquired knowledge through the struggles, defeats and triumphs over the course of the story. This manifests as wisdom and strength for a hero and for a composed piece, a richer understanding of rhythm and tone in the context of the Exposition. A composed piece might repeat a melody note for note, but the way it’s composed will be different.

Syncopation relates to the idea of emphasizing a part of the rhythm that is unexpected. In standard 4/4 time, the simplest and most straight forward time (the music you can easily clap your hands to), we all know where the beat is (incidentally this usually, for most of us, refers to the down beat on 1 and 3. Gospel music in churches emphasize the up beat on 2 and 4, which generally coincides with the snare drum beat in rock music). A misplaced beat or an alternate interval playing against a rhythm counting in 4/4, can throw us off. In a story this is conflict. Our hero likes to count in 4. That’s his home and school and neighborhood. This is Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction. Everything where it should be, predictable. What happens when you put the emphasis on an interval that is slightly shorter than the normal 4/4 beat? You start out on 1 (great everybody’s here) then just before 2 hits, an unexpected guest shows up. Nobody invited the dotted eighth note, but he’s here. What’s going on? And before anybody answers you, there’s that annoying dotted eighth again, and this time he’s way out of line, in fact in direct opposition to everybody. Ok something’s got to give, the party is ruined, this guy’s a jerk. Ready everyone on 3. And again the dotted eighth intruder spoils the fun by jumping in too late. One more chance and this guy’s gone. He better get it together on 4. Thank you. You can stay, that’s better. Nope spoke to soon, this guy’s nuts. Well the next party is just around the corner and guess who shows up half past? Yep, you guessed it. Now everything is completely different. Nobody is happy. What I’ve described is a 3 feel, over a 4 feel. If you keep this going, each measure will be a completely new rhythm, until you’ve completed 4 measures. Then it starts all over again. One little dotted eighth note caused a lot of conflict just by being a 16th note short of the normal beat in 4/4. Harold Crick’s watch stopped and changed his life forever.

Dissonance relates to how two or more tones get along, harmonize or don’t. Go to a piano and hold down the C and B at the same time. That’s harsh dissonance. Hold down C and A or G or F or E or C (an octave) and you’re experiencing less dissonance and more harmony. Everybody knows this…well you do now. Forget about D. D sucks and should be banned from all pianos, in my opinion (D flat and D sharp can stay though). In story structure this reminds me of the concept of foreshadowing and characterization. C and B can hang out and have a good time but only if other friends are around. Leave them alone and watch out. Chances are they wouldn’t want to be around one another if nobody else is around anyway.

What’s implied here for characterization is how two people behave in the presence of certain other people. A woman wants to extort money from another woman and is usually condescending, with a dominating attitude toward the other woman. Enters a man the extorting, condescending woman doesn’t know, and she suddenly becomes the other woman’s best friend. Dissonance and harmony. C and B play it off perfectly, but just for a moment. Foreshadowing. We see them getting along but what’s to become of this questionable relationship. I sense a change. In classical music, the intent is to create subtle and pleasing sounds that change over time.

A modulation can be unpleasant if it’s not subtly hinted at before hand. A smooth transition from one key to another in classical music is what makes it soothing and fresh. Dissonant tones momentarily and carefully placed are what help that smooth transition (Foreshadowing). This is what allows a look in the eye to be a major shift in a story (Modulation) without it jolting you out of your seat.

Good music finds a balance. It can and should wander off into unexpected rhythms (conflict) and tones, abruptly throwing you off (in your face foreshadowing), or bring you along to experience changes you never saw coming (subtle foreshadowing) without you being able to detect the change occurring. But, there are fundamental rules which have been established through the experience of the masters, demonstrating that these necessary changes must be done in certain ways in order to be enjoyed by the listener. Regardless of what the composer intended the listener to experience, the song will always be balanced out and complete at the end, if the composer wants as many people to understand and enjoy the music as possible.

The same is true for the novel or screenplay writer. The human ear has expectations when the human is listening to music. The eyes have expectations when the human is reading a novel or watching a movie (eyes and ears in that case). These expectations can’t be ignored. Nobody wants to hear my composition of a whole C note in 1/2 time repeated for 48 measures. That’s not music (but if I add another dissonant tone, apparently it qualifies as music in The Zombie Diaries). Nobody wants to read about Sally filing her nails as she sits on hold on the telephone, popping her gum where the big ending is a yawn that exposes the fillings in her teeth. That’s not a story. Ok I’m almost done pretending to know what I’m talking about. Let’s Recapitulate shall we? Exposition is to music as Part 1 is to set up as it is to Act I. Development is to music as Parts 2 and 3 are to response and attack as they are to Act II. Recapitulation is to music as Part 4 is to resolution as it is to Act III.

Now to address organic writing.

If I hear a drummer say that he/she is more of an “organic drummer,” all it really tells me is that they haven’t taken the time to learn to read drum music. Sure they can eventually mimic beats in some songs, but when that rhythm becomes intricate, certain divisions of the beat are completely lost to their lack of understanding. This also speaks to the limit of their own ability to create. There are many unnatural things to overcome in order to play some very fundamental drum beats that will never be attempted by the “organic” drummer.

Can I learn to speak Spanish by picking up a dictionary, written in Spanish, just by memorizing the words without understanding what they mean? I would be able to mimic the language but I would not know what I was saying and therefore not be speaking Spanish. A writer can read mystery novels (I’ve heard this somewhere before), but if they don’t learn the underlying structure before they write they’re own mystery, they’re just mimicking. They don’t know what they’re saying.

Song and story have many structural elements in common that make them good.

What I’ve presented above is certainly open for debate, but what might be there is a seed that if you choose to plant it (learn music theory, learn story structure), could grow and give you some insights on how to finely manipulate the ideas and words of your stories, in terms of the timing and placement of some of the subtle elements. Structure leads to understanding, which leads to creative genius, which leads to organic. That’s the only way that cookie crumbles. From Chopin to Bjork, structure supports the genius of their art.

I hope this brings some useful insight into the world of writing and sparks some good ideas. I can say with certainty that Story Structure- Demystified helped me not only understand story structure but it also enriched my understanding of music. Synapse Connections Abound In A Carbon-based Sponge: News at 11.

13 Responses to Storytelling Theory vs. Music Theory, by Steve Steuart

  1. Pingback: Story Structure vs. Music Theory — a guest post by Steve Steuart

  2. Mark Lawrence

    Steve, what a fascinating post. Music theory is over my head but I do agree with your conclusions about structure and the need to learn how it works rather than just imitating it.

  3. Bill Evans would have made a great playwrite.

  4. Deb

    Steve has done a great job of comparing writing and composition – as a former music teacher I do know what he means and could relate very well. These, along with Larry’s 101 tips and the Tiger Woods analogy, have totally convinced to give up organic.

  5. Oh, my, this takes me back to high school and college where I played violin. For college, I had the choice between music or business. Finally decided on business.

    One has to know the rules before you can “break” them. One epiphany I had not too long ago was with Mozart’s Violin Concerto #3 ( with Isaac Stern). This shows musical structure as well as character arc.

    The violin starts out somewhat diffidently. It talks back and forth with the orchestra (mentor), and finally arcs over to being confident and triumphant – The Hero’s Journey.

    If you watch the video with Isaac Stern, you’ll see no “efforting” in his technique; it simply appears easy. He spends his time creating the powerful emotional impact.

  6. Great post! I’m definitely not an expert on music–or writing for that matter–but I once heard Sting talking about he writes a song, and he mentioned the different parts. When I finished Larry’s book, I thought about Sting again, and how writing isn’t the only creative endeavor that requires structure.

    I’m sure if I asked my aunt–an artist–she could give me some insight into the balance of light and dark, and the combinations of color that produce a pleasing painting. Same for photography. I’m willing to bet that most, if not all, creative endeavors are based on some kind of recognized structure.

  7. Steve

    Thanks for the comments folks. Mark, it can be made to be at eye level if you do two simple things: Memorize the circle of fifths and the step/half step structure of Major and minor keys. If you do this you’ll be able to sit down at a piano and play and create.

    Laurie, I agree. So would Aloke Dutta.

    Deb, don’t give up organic completely. If the ideas aren’t flowing structure can trap you (you can’t frame a house if you’re not sure if it has fireplace or chimney). Conversely if you have great ideas without structure, then they’ll sit in you head like the dream you had last night, confused and disjointed. A balance needs to be “dialed” in. Music is arguably, a perfect expression of the left and right sides of the brain through sound. So beautiful, the words to describe it might escape you. Examined in great detail, it becomes mathematics.

    Bruce, you’ve boiled down my article successfully down to one sentence. “Rules” scare some people because they associate them with being confined or limited. In the case for writing the “rules” shall set you free. I’ll be checking out the link shortly. Thanks.

    Gwen, you say everything has a structure and you should stand firm on that assertion. “A picture is worth a thousand words” might be an understatement. And Sting, another of the greats in my opinion.

    Great comments from everybody. Thank you.


  8. Steve

    Syncopation- I state that the rhythm is repeated after 4 measures. That’s bad math. In 4 it’s a 3 measure rhythm. Doh! (conflict- that one little mistake undermined my credibility. I could have let it go and hoped nobody would notice. Or I could point it out and suffer the consequences).

    Carry on :0)

  9. Curtis

    “Music is arguably, a perfect expression of the left and right sides of the brain through sound.”

    Steve. I’m glad you brought that up. Left brain. Right brain. Seems to me that is where the battle ground actually is over the structure no structure debate.

    Structure -No structure preference has it’s source in something greater than our opinions. That something to me is our brains.

    The trick, let “story”, preferably your story, the one you are writing become, if not the perfect expression ……at least the expression of left and right sides of the brain through writing. At that point the debate is over.

    Once a person is aware of and accepts the basics of left brain right brain theory, most if not all of the struggle ends.

    For what it’s worth. I wish I could say I learned about left brain right brain info from my grad courses. Nope, learned it from a book on skiing.

    What we are talking about with “story”, I think can be related not only to music, but most art.

    I’m also a photographer. We have all seen snap shots, pictures, and a few photographs. We also know a snap shot is a long way from being a photograph. The first thing that creates this difference is “composition” i.e. how the picture is put together. To my ear that sounds a lot like structure. When the photographer talks about framing a picture to create the feeling of depth he is talking about hunting, literally hunting around for something, a tree limb or the moon white and milky to the right of the orange colored light house to add to the picture to create that feeling. If composition sounds like construction it is.

    Now granted, I like to talk about my work in more esoteric/poetic terms than that. But, it is what it is and I know it. I’ve been a pantser. I’ve got boxes of snap shots to prove it.

    I like photography much better. I gave up the left brain right brain battle. I’ve enjoyed the blend. When you hear things like, ” That looks like a painting.” Or, ” I’d like to buy that one.” Know what I mean?

    Structure. Don’t leave home without it.

  10. I really enjoyed this! I’m a right and left brain thinker and resonated with what you said. I played music by ear -any intrument I picked up – as a child, and being able to simultaneously analyse and express meant I resisted when I finally came to learning to read music at high school. I unconsciously had cravings to improvise or predict what would come next. It took me a long time – until I discovered this site – to realise that what makes the art when it comes to playing a symphony or a concerto is how every individual musician interprets and expresses themselves within the structure, rules and limits of their instrument, the written music and the conductor’s demands and expectations. It’s an infinite matrix.

    I was at a school music competition the other day. Listening to 24 young people from all over the country playing the same beginners’ drum piece really sharpened my awareness, and as often happens, had me thinking about this site. I know very little about reading and performing drum music, but it was obvious who the winners were going to be.

    Within an identical structure, they were the ones who seemed most confident and connected to their instruments, looking not only to perform the piece well, but for how they could express themselves in it without taking attention away from the piece itself. They had perfect rythm, the silences were crisp and perfectly placed, but most noticeable were the dynamics, the way they showed the variations in the volume of each beat and emphasised the unique sound of each part of the drum kit. Even though I wasn’t an adjudicator, I knew who the best drummers were and whose performances I enjoyed most.

    But behind those winning drum performances, there were excellent teachers, teachers who’d taught those kids not only the mechanics, structures and rules necessary, but who’d encouraged their uniqueness and individual expression within those structures.

    That’s what Larry does here. He never lets us forget that we’re not just writing to impress a few agents and publishers. We need to touch the audience, the book buyers and readers, surprise and delight them and overdeliver when it comes to meeting their expectations. I’m guessing those winning drummers don’t think, as they practise every day, “I must practise so I’m good enough to impress adjudicators in a 45 second competition piece next spring.” But if we practise doing what we love until we’re unconsciously competent, then jumping through hoops isn’t so daunting if it helps us get to where we really want to be. After years of training and honing their instincts, publishers may know what they’re looking for, like those adjudicators, but they’re also an audience hoping to be delighted.

    Great thought-provoking piece, Stuart.

  11. Nina

    beautiful – delicious – and fun to read! thank you for your delightful sideways artistic expression combining the loves of my life which fold perfectly word and sound! loved it loved it loved it! you made my heart sing!

  12. Nina

    beautiful – delicious – a perfect peek into a philosophical artists mind!
    loved it loved it loved it
    i feel less stressed having read it, as though there has been some secret revealed – a fun mystery of the arts
    an “oh yeah!” moment! “how cool!”
    will read this again and again and share it with musician and writers alike!

  13. Steve

    Yes. You speak to the idea of “dialing in” a balance. Albert Einstein and Stephen King both had/have wild imaginations and expressed them in complete opposite directions. What they had in common was structure. The organic writer and musician may not be aware that they indeed do yearn for structure. The mere act of outward expression is an attempt to articulate (convey understanding). Again I think it gets back to the negative stigma attatched to structure, to really mean rules, which is associated with limits. And let’s all admit it there’s a natural aversion to anything that could be deemed to be hard work too.

    I always take the perfect picture with my camera. The lake, sunset, trees, ducks…RTD bus, street sign, suprised unsuspecting jogger wondering why I’m taking their picture. All I saw was the ducks and the sunset.

    Janice wrote:
    “I played music by ear -any intrument I picked up – as a child, and being able to simultaneously analyse and express meant I resisted when I finally came to learning to read music at high school…
    But if we practise doing what we love until we’re unconsciously competent, then jumping through hoops isn’t so daunting if it helps us get to where we really want to be.”

    I was exactly the opposite, no ability until I learned through structured lessons. I have friends like you and envy their natural connection to music. Practice makes perfect. That put in a more complicated way could be: If you train your subconcious mind to do the right thing when you’re not paying attention, it will allow to get back to being spontaneoulsy creative (unconciously competent). Some are born with it (Stephen King, Bjork), but most of us have to work hard at it.

    So glad to hear what I wrote connected with you (and others) so well and that you found it fun to read. And that it was a stress reliever too. Keep examining the comparison beyond what I wrote. I’m sure there must be alternate explanations (comparisons) that might prove to be as enlightening, if not moreso. I love your enthusiasm.

    Thanks again everyone for the kind and thought provoking comments. There’s a lot to digest, I’ll need to re-read them all again. And a big thanks to Larry for his books (and this forum) that have helped me so much.

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