Who, among us, has never been on a dance floor at a festival or party – indoor or open-air – and listening to a certain song thought of some kind of story being told? Or as if the music is taking you somewhere? Like it wanted to tell us something in particular? Well, this is the product of our way of understanding a construction technique within the musical arrangement. Before starting this article, it is necessary to state that the arrangement is the organization of the elements of a song. The way in which the instruments play in a combined way in different functions, within a given musical structure.
he concept that I will address in this text is that among electronic music producers is intertwined with the arrangement, but it is not exclusively musical, which is called storytelling. First of all, I warn readers: this is my view on this topic, other artists may have different approaches. There is no kind of formula that will be taught here. If we literally analyze the meaning of the term storytelling (to tell a story) and transpose it to electronic music, at first glance it becomes very vague. For when dealing specifically with the electronic genre (psytrance and its subgenres, techno and other ramifications) these do not have, exactly, something fundamental for a narrative, the lyrics. In fact, this theme encounters two difficulties if we try to develop it by purely technical aspects. Firstly, as I mentioned before, the abstract aspect of telling a story through music without lyrics. And second, due to the difficulty of finding elements that can lead and characterize a story within an arrangement.
To begin, I will first conceptualize what storytelling is, as this concept is used in several areas from marketing to literature, in addition to cinema and theater. Having a clear meaning of this concept at the beginning of this text can bring some clues on where to find the way to build a narrative within electronic music. Researching this word, I found in the book “StoryTelling: Histórias Que Deixam Marcas” by the author Adilson Xavier, three interesting definitions on the subject:
If we look closely, these three definitions have words that could be very well placed within the universe of musical production. For example, the “elaboration of scenes”, “capturing people's attention”, “putting pieces together” (remembering the definition of the arrangement) and, finally, “building imaginary monuments”. However, the big question is how, when we open the screen of our DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), to effectively create narrative elements in a purely subjective way, without any optical reference that stimulates us. In other words, it is different, for example, from the process of writing a fiction that, despite having room for imagination, the settings, colors, characters, chapters and scenes are put in more detail to readers. Music, on the other hand, acts directly on the listener's subjectivity, opening up a larger space for individual interpretation.
Therefore, in my research on the relation of storytelling to our genre, I found a more direct parallel in the arts where music plays an important role. In other words, it was in dramaturgy that I found elements for building a history in the musical arrangement. So, in this new blog article I will try to show a little of my vision about storytelling and list some ways to tell a story in our genre, electronic music. That said, we can ask ourselves: after all, what then is the relation between dramatic art and storytelling in electronic music?
1. The example and the visual exercise
I start with the visual example because it is more practical, because in the second section we will have already equipped our imagination to treat music only as a soundscape. That is, starting by showing how music helps in the story told visually helps us to form it musically in the next section, in a clearer way, with only audible elements. When listing the relationship between audio and image we can explicitly observe the understanding of storytelling with music, and thus start to make it less subjective and more objective. So, we start with a simple mental exercise: if we stop to imagine now and visualize a play, what would we be imagining?
Certainly, we would have to imagine countless factors that involve the construction of a plot. The plot, the setting, the dialogues, the scenes, the transitions, the lights, the colors and so on. Thus, listing and visualizing (albeit mentally) that piece would still lack one last element: music. Which is curiously imagined - in dramaturgy - only after this visualization exercise. Within a scenario that has expressively certain characteristics such as more obscure, more cheerful, nature, dystopian and so many others, music becomes a key piece for the creation of the atmosphere on stage. Because through the sense of hearing the process of subjectification of that climax is completed to our vision. In other words, the image added to the hearing makes us feel the true sensation of the story narrated in the dramaturgy. Maestro Eugenio Matos, in his book “The art of composing music for cinema”, explains in detail this musical function in dramaturgy:
“The music score has an even more comprehensive function than the emphasis on the emotional factor involved in the scene. It helps to create a specific atmosphere, like a ‘mark’ that gives unity to the film as a whole. It situates the story within a certain psycho-emotional environment that is the film's own, helping to tackle all the different events and reinforcing the soul of the characters and places that take part in the drama.” (Matos, p. 49)
With music acting on the image, we can perceive the power it has to transform characters, to completely change the conceptions of the environments, to tense when necessary and distended when necessary. Who doesn't remember Bernand Herrmann's famous suspense track in Alfred Hitchcock's Psychosis? Now, imagine the same scene with ambient music, without tension, there would not be the same impact that exists and that completely marked the history of cinema. “[...] we can consider the musical score as a hidden character who, however, actively participates in the drama” (Matos, p. 51). I am bringing these examples to show more clearly the role of music in the creation of storytelling, even if still linked to dramaturgy. It is the music that sustains and guides the entire process of building storytelling on the subjective plane. While the images, visual effects and physical space of the film or play fill the entire objective process of our senses.
“Music should, therefore, convey the entire message, whatever it may be. On the other hand, when the role of musical creation 'is reduced' to supporting the message conveyed by other means - visual, verbal, etc. - a new set of factors starts to condition - truly - the composer's creation.” (Matos, p. 52)
In short, the role of music as this “hidden character” has the function of making us feel in accordance with our conceptions, ideas and feelings and complementing the experience that audiovisual offers us with images. The space for the creation of storytelling in dramaturgy - designed and structured by a script - is composed by the clarity with which we see the scenery, the scenes and the dialogues. In addition to the concealed support that the music fills in a non-visual way, where the impressions of the images do not occupy. In other words, music is secondary, but by no means less important, having a fundamental role in the plot.
This leads us to conclude that in audiovisual storytelling is told in a tangible way. The images, scenes and dialogues contextualize the story in an objective way, without such an open space for different subjectivity for each viewer. The music in this case has a visual basis that shows the path of the story, in which the composer must follow. That said, after exposing the role of music in dramaturgy together with the visual elements that they have in the narrative, to get to the heart of this text we must take a step further. I ask: if we remove the objective elements (images) and only music remains as the single narrative source, how can storytelling be told? And what are the narrative elements that we can find in music?
2. The arrangement theater
As I tried to describe earlier, music in dramaturgy serves to supplement the emotions of the story of those who watch a film or a play. This means that it is as if the music orbits around the story that is told by the visual elements. Now, let's change the orbit. To find storytelling narrated solely in (and by) music, we need to look for the same basic 'visual' components in the story. It looks a little abstract now, but let's get started. First, I will show you some functions that music plays in a story. Then, describe the narrative elements within the music and, finally, present my method of implementing storytelling.
Once again, remembering the book by conductor Eugenio Matos, there are elements that are very consistent and exposed in a didactic way that show the functions of music in a given story. Also according to the conductor, “among the most current approaches to music for image, one that proves to be satisfactory due to its didactic character organizes its functions into three major categories: Physical, Psychological and Technical Functions” (Matos, p. 54). Each of these three groups is divided into subtopics.
- Physical Functions, which are linked “to what is seen on the screen, that is, the music emphasizes what is perceived in the sequence or helps to situate the audience in the time and space in which the facts occur” (Matos, p. 54) are divided into: Emphasis on action, Mickeymousing, Spatial Reference and Chronological Reference.
- Psychological Functions “act directly on people's emotions” (Matos, p. 54), they are divided into: Psychological Environment, Subliminal Emotion and Commentary.
-Technical Function, which has the function of connecting the film through music, is divided only into Continuity and Coherence.
It is worth remembering that these functions presented by Eugenio Matos are related to the image. However, our goal is to find elements for a story that is told only by music. In this way, I will seek to understand them beyond the image, seeking to incorporate them into the dance music. Therefore, I will not address each one of them, as some do not fit our objective. I will list just a few functions that can contribute to a good construction of storytelling in electronic music.
- Spatial reference (physical function): The first one, as its name already says, has the characteristic of bringing the listener as close as possible to a certain place. Spatial reference is used a lot to emphasize the location in which the story is taking place. Here, one can use the most creative ways possible to bring greater compatibility between music and the storytelling space. “Percussions in simple rhythms, without melodies, can signal that we are in Africa; a penny whistle played in Celtic style can place us somewhere in Ireland or Irish cultures set in other countries ”(Matos, p. 56). In other words, the function of referencing the listener / spectator spatially is based on a relationship between the theme and the composition.
Bringing it to a dancefloor track, who - especially from the psytrance genre - does not remember any music that had percussions and indigenous, African songs? Well, this would be a classical example of incorporating the Spatial Reference into electronic music, without objective elements, without any image, the listeners refer to some visual reference that is familiar, filling the space of the image by its subjectivity.
- Psychological environment (psychological function): Absolutely, the function that most can serve us to create a musical storytelling designed for the dancefloor, is the psychological function. First, because our goal does not include visual characteristics, with an emphasis solely on the subjective character of the listener. Thus, it is necessary to have a special focus for the creation of a physical environment, as we saw in the spatial reference, but especially, an atmosphere that triggers the psychology of those who listen. As Eugênio Matos explains,
“Here, the focus of the composition moves to deeper levels, which makes the work of the composer, on one hand, more interesting and, on the other hand, a greater challenge. [...] the music travels through the vastness of feelings, proving to be of immense importance in helping to tell stories.” (Matos, p. 57)
One of the main psychological functions is called the Psychological Environment. Creating an environment that contributes to the listener's subjectivity is fundamental. For this reason, this function is very important: “establishing a psychological environment through carefully elaborated music is our role as composers” (Matos, p. 57). As previously noted, music being a hidden character and dealing with the creation of storytelling directly through music, the psychological environment will give the 'tone' - not tonal, but aesthetic, as I will explain later - in which the storytelling will develop. Something softer, more tense, more introspective and so on. Having the clarity of which song is going to be told is a fundamental step towards narrating a story with consistency from the musical elements. “In short, the most important thing, regarding the psychological environment, is to have the general atmosphere of the film before you and to use all musical resources in order to contribute to that atmosphere” (Matos, p. 58).
Subliminal emotion: Last but not least, let’s talk about the so-called subliminal emotion. As I said above, music is, in dramaturgy, a hidden character that has the function of creating environments, to tense and distend scenes when necessary. It is it that works subliminally in the emotions of the audience, so this function could not be more explanatory by its name. It is exactly to highlight the emotions present in the story.
“Through the dramatic power that music has, it helps the audience to understand the plot and its subtleties, enhancing both the most easily detectable feelings and the most obscure ones. Thus, the story can be told without the need for many words or other more explicit narrative resources” (Matos, p. 58)
“In a similar way, music can introduce some change that is not apparent on the screen as an emotional change of a character. Even a small variation in the musical sense, such as a tool in a suspended chord or the use of another mode or scale, can lead the sequence to a more dramatic outcome” (Matos, p. 59)
Applying in a more practical way in our genre, we could observe this function in the arrangement from the construction of a structure, or even in a chord progression. In a construction of a long break, that has a harmony and melody that appeals to the emotion of the listeners. What is the famous expectation for the drop if not a creation of subliminal emotion from the listeners? The entire audience knows that in this moment of music, something is close to happening, acting directly on the subjective expectations of each listener. Because each person imagines something different that could happen after a drop. This is the performance of the function of subliminal emotion in its simplest and most didactic form. All of these examples are practical processes that lead us to create an environment and, above all, emotions - not necessarily good - that only music, by acting in the subjective field, can subliminally touch those who listen.
Therefore, using only these three functions of music - in which they are exemplified in dramaturgy, but here we use it in another way - we can now begin to have the first narrative elements for the creation of storytelling in music. First, we refer spatially to where and when we want the history of our music to take place. Then, we find the mood of the music, the atmosphere that will set this referenced space. And finally, we will tell the story directly to the listener, from the interaction with the audience's subliminal emotions.
2.1 Melody, Harmony, Rhythm ... action!
As we know, in dramaturgy we have elements that are central to a good narrative. Among them is the interaction of the characters who tell the story from their perspectives, I am talking about dialogue. According to Patrice Pavis's “Theater Dictionary”, “dialogue is usually a verbal exchange between characters. [...] The essential criterion of dialogue is the exchange and reversibility of communication ”(Pavis, p. 92). In addition, we have a second element, which is the scenario, which, according to Pavis' dictionary, is: “In the naive consciousness, the scenario is a background screen, generally in perspective and illusionist, which inserts the scenic space in a given medium” (Pavis, p. 42). And finally, another interesting element is the cut of scenes and the speed of the facts with which the story develops during the plot.
Still researching and reading about the book by maestro Eugenio Matos, I came to the heart of the question in this text, which was very explanatory about how we could build true musical storytelling. Bringing these elements that I described above: dialogue, scenario and speed of the facts in which they structure the plot visually, to think them only in musical terms. In this way, we arrived at the core of the text to answer our initial question: what is the relationship between dramatic art and storytelling in electronic music? In addition, I will bring some audible examples to demonstrate a more objective form to which I will stick.
Maestro Eugenio Matos himself warns that “In this way, we can establish a connection between the fundamental aspects of music - melody, harmony and rhythm - and the elements observed during the piece” (Matos, p. 52). So far we have shown how music supported the objective elements (scenes, scenery, dialogues, among others). Then we removed these elements and started to work on the subjective issues of music; its spatial and psychological functions and how to use them to start the construction of a musical storytelling. That is, we showed how even removed from the visual elements of music, it still acts on the listener's subjective. Now, we will show how, even within the musical arrangement, there are objective narrative elements that are equivalent to images, which are exactly what I am trying to show in this text. Let's start.
The first objective narrative element that we find, according to the conductor, is the melody. In his book, this element is analogous to the dialogue of the characters. The “sequence of notes played one by one, creating what is known for reasons, phrases and periods - similar to constructions with words” (Matos, p. 52). In other words, if we are going to put the melody as the driver of the story based on the dialogues, we will have to focus on two aspects. First of all the melodic progression. When it starts in a more minimalist way, giving the first traces of history, with few notes, to reach its chorus with all its composition being played. It would then be equivalent to telling a story from its beginning showing the first narrative characteristics, in order to reach its peak and end up resolving its narrative tension. What we have here is what Richard Wagner called Leitmov or the motive, the sound signature of a character throughout the plot when it appears. In this way, the melody becomes the part that will tell the story from its melodic progression beginning, middle and end. The second aspect that I call attention to is the classic ‘call and response’, technique, which when a certain instrument plays a note, another responds (within the same harmonic field) and so throughout the music. This technique essentially characterizes a musical dialogue between the instruments of the arrangement.
The second element is the harmony. This essential foundation of musical composition is expressed equivalent to the setting of a given story. In other words, "harmony thus helps to establish a visible general environment, a particular atmosphere supporting the melody, that is, everything the actor communicates in words and gestures." Thus, closely linked to the psychological function of music, harmony gives us the basis on which the story will be told. Musically speaking, harmony is the harmonic basis that will sustain the dialogues of the melody throughout the arrangement. Furthermore, it is from the harmonic variation - or the scenario - that the dialogues and the general mood of the music will change. “Its strength manifests itself in the sense of making instantaneous impressions, often difficult to describe, especially in the impalpable domains of emotions and feelings.” (Matos, p. 52)
Finally, the third element is rhythm. This musical foundation is equivalent to the relation of the speed, the cadence, the cut of scenes and the intensity of the story. Rhythm, musically, is the “structure of times ordered in pre-defined schemes and followed by a certain drive.” (Matos, p. 52). In this way, an intensity in the rhythm, in the progression and in the filling of the layers that make up the arrangement can lead us to a greater tension of the arrangement and of the music. Who doesn't remember the drum progression technique in electronic music? 1/8 close hat, 1/16 close hat and finally 1/8 open hat? For this reason, the rhythm “represents the succession and speed of the facts, that is, of the speeches, gestures, movements, play of lights, displacement of scenarios, etc.” (Matos, p. 52). Thus, the rhythm of the music leads to a greater intensity of storytelling, filling its layers and progressing them and vice versa. Harmony shows us where this intensity is occurring, and what climate is being transmitted. And finally, the melody dialogs directly with the listener through the driver's motive and the call and response technique.
Relation between musical and visual elements
Listing the narrative elements within the music, we will now move on to the last topic, a practical example of how to exercise all these concepts within the music. I will take the risk of showing a personal example and also showing my entire creative process before building a song.
3. The method
Whenever I go to the studio to create a song, I have only one thing in mind. A question that I need to solve and therefore I need to find elements good enough for me to find the answer. This question is: what message do I want to get through this song? For this, I always start pre-production preparation, a search for concepts, a more in-depth study on the theme that I want to transform into music.
So, the first step in my creative process starts with choosing a theme. But how do I start this search, where should I start? Well, honestly, this is a strictly personal matter. But the question the artist must ask is: where does my inspiration come from? What are my references? What kind of aesthetics do I want to show? What are my values that I think should be passed on by music? To believe that my ideas are exclusively mine, that I am my greatest inspiration is a complete mistake, in my view. As the poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda said: “I don't believe in originality. It is yet another fetish created in our age of dizzying collapse. I believe in personality through any language, in any form, in any sense of artistic creation ”(Neruda, p. 317, free translation). So, this first step is something very individualized, but very collective, because the inspiration comes from our social environment and we just need to find it, see what we identify with and find our theme.
Once the theme was chosen, space is open for three new tasks. The first is a study on this topic, start reading about all related subjects. Observe what aesthetics this theme can really bring and what environments I want to create in music. At the same time, I look for all types of vocals that talk about this theme and find the specific chorus that synthesizes the theme in a few sentences. The vocal has an important role here, because of everything we talk about, of all the elements in music it becomes the most objective, which speaks directly about what the story is about. Finally, I can now begin to study the relation of the theme to the tone. Here, I refer to the tone (of tonality), but also to the aesthetic tone in which my music will fit. As maestro Eugênio explains, regarding the choice of this double sense of tone for the soundtrack of a film:
“The tone, considered here, concerns a general character that directly affects music. It is related, for example, to the color of the image, the rhythm of the montage, the framing, the light, in addition to the story's own concept. These aspects together provide the composer with the key to establishing the tone of the film. Therefore, while the concept of the film is related to the values contained and transmitted by the story, the tone of the film conditions (and is conditioned by) all its plastic aspects, as well as by the concept itself, that is, the concept influences the tone of the film. and it's contained therein.” (Matos, p. 50)
It is only from this choice of tone that I can finally open the DAW and do the first experiments. Playing the first few chords along with the vocal, and having already done a previous study of the subject, I have the necessary elements to be able to find the psychological and spatial functions for my music. As well as, starting a scenario from the creation of a harmonic field in which my story will be told. So, I can go inside the DAW and start putting together the version of that story. Creating the melodic dialogues the arrangement will lead the scenes from a previous aesthetic structuring that creates a consistent basis for writing the music's script. It is true that there is the construction of kick and bass, percussion, drums and all the fundamental elements of electronic music and psytrance. However, I am talking about musical / conceptual storytelling and not about those specific fundamentals.
The most fascinating part of this process is that even this whole previous study that will be launched under the subjective of each listener, will be filled with each individuality. In other words, my interpretation of my music initially, even with all the study and so on, it will not be the same as who will listen to it. However, it is the aesthetic elements that provide this (re) interpretation of my music to other people, that create from their subjectivities the personal understandings of these elements that are impalpable. I believe that it is at this moment, when music goes to the public and there is a huge range of reinterpretations of this by listeners, that the artistic cycle of a work is complete. I'm here talking about the triad art, artist and audience. It is, therefore, only in the transformation from the contact of the work with the public that my music stops being a song, and becomes an artistic work.
Relation between art, artist and audience
3.1 A practical example of musical storytelling
This song of mine that I will analyze in this last subtopic of the text, was created by me in 2015. It does not fit here to go into the details of a context that was when I created it, however, it has a personal symbolic value that is expressed in the music. But let's make a more objective analysis of it, not of the thirteen minutes, but of some central elements and try to look for the narrative elements of musical storytelling that I brought throughout the text. Follow me into the story.
First, the music starts with someone asking a question, describing a dystopian scenario where everything is in complete destruction. And then, starting from a “wake up”, we entered the music scenario.
If we analyze well, in the first minutes the harmony and the psychological environment shows something ambivalent, ambiences a little more cheerful, however, still suspense in the background. In addition, we can perceive two characters through the vocals that appear in 0:59 of music and the other in 1:25. Here, then, we have an uncertain environment due to the psychological environment created by the harmony in a minor tone of the music and the guitar that appears in 1:22 of music announces something from its notes.
In 1:45 something central for the storytelling of the music happens. The ambience changes, and now human voices (choirs) enter to represent something redeeming for the music, as if announcing the arrival of someone. And then the vocal announces that someone is alive, with the guitar's response playing a suspense melody.
After the next break, the first character responds with a threatening tone. I literally describe what goes on here in those first opening moments because these are the central elements for the music's narrative. Apparently, there are two characters talking about a third, but who exactly would be the third character? Specifically who is listening to the music. They talk directly about who is listening and guide the listener through the storytelling until the end. Note that the aesthetics of music is at all times of suspense, of tension, as something still unresolved. From 4:38 the melodic sequence that appears tells us that we are in full flight, against one of the characters that tries at all times to block us from an exit, which we find in the last seconds of music. At all the time, the music is a contradiction and tension between two characters talking directly, one trying to take the listener out of this scenario, the other trying to keep him in this psychological environment.
About the rhythm, we have two moments of extreme tension and speed in music. At 7:40, where the music finds its peak, and we could say a peak of the race that is found off the stage. And another, at 11:30, after the break, there is a moment of complete redemption, in which one of the characters finally manages to escape the other and that leads us to the opening of the gate at 13:36 of music.
Note that in the break there is a great “confrontation”, the harmony and the psychological and spatial environment at all times appear, through explosions, sirens, birds and tense atmospheres. The vocal plays out fully and there are several unsuccessful drop attempts. Why these? Some people tell me it was purely to “crush” or mislead the public. However, understanding within the storytelling of the song, it is directly related to the threats that one of the characters makes to us when trying to leave the scene. However the drop happens and, at 10:54, we have a vocal objectively announcing us: "Freedom! Yes! Yes!" Aesthetics, after the break, creates an environment of less tension, of transition to something that is more resolved.
In the end, the same guitar that appears at the beginning and in the middle of the song under an 'escape' aspect, with a greater tension, it presents itself in another way, lighter and announcing the end, under the vocal, now showing who the listener is: "this is the freeman!" This is, therefore, the driving motive of music, the search for freedom.
I listed some more precise points of how the narrative was told in this song. It has, above all, a theme of contradiction and escape of the place where it is, and the two voices talk to the listener in a subliminal way, one convincing to stay and the other to leave. The journey then is this, the story that is told in this music is that of the listener himself coming out of some scenario, making room for the audience to fill the unfinished narrative elements of the music with their subjectivity. In other words, the visual elements that we discussed at the beginning are created by the listener and guided by the story and its musical elements during the thirteen minutes. Whoever becomes the hidden character now is no longer the music, but the listener who is the last piece of the artistic work. I brought this theme, which I like very much, to try to instigate new producers who are starting to have a small guide to try to find a way to be able to communicate what they want using their creations. The concept behind the music is fundamental, it is what differentiates not originality, but as Neruda says, his own personality. Therefore, I close this text with a quote from one of my favorite writers, China Mieville, talking about ideas and concepts:
“Striving for ‘novelty’ and ‘uniqueness’ can sadden you. And there is no such thing as ‘without new ideas’. Perhaps the best thing is to redo, recombine and mix the ideas in new combinations. To be honest, I think many of us have better ideas than we really think we have. I think one of the big problems we face is that people are trained to hear that their ideas are ridiculous, quickly becoming discouraged. I think the biggest problem that people face is not the lack of idea, but the discouragement to stick with them” (Mieville, 2016).
See you soon!
Adilson Xavier, Storytelling: Histórias que deixam marcas (Best Bussines, 2015)
China Mieville Entrevista (Revista Gallileu 2016)
Eugenio Matos, A Arte de Compor Música para o Cinema (Editora Senac, 2014)
Pablo Neruda, Confieso que he vivido (Debolsillo, 2014)
Patrice Pavis, Dicionário de Teatro (Perspectiva, 2008)