My mom is a born storyteller. It’s no wonder she’s a great writer and a professional book editor. “Long winded” is what we would call her where I’m from, and I mean that in a good way. Every story, no matter how great or insignificant, has the key elements of a great story: character, story arc, tension. Many of the stories involve the family cats, and those (strangely enough) have quite a bit of dialogue.
Sometimes you pick up a book and begin reading, but put the book down long before it’s over and never return to it. Why is that? Usually it is because some or many aspects of the story are weak. It isn’t worth the effort of devoting time and energy to read because the story doesn’t grab you.
As musicians, we are storytellers. And we must be very mindful of the quality of our story. Music without a story is just noise.
Vocalists have it easy. Their music usually dictates story and emotion, guiding the singer in the emotional presentation of the music. We musicians of a non-singing variety do not generally have that luxury. And it hinders most of us. We get stuck thinking about notes on a page and forget that we, too, are supposed to be telling a story to our audience. A story without words can still be told. And I’ll say it again: music without a story is just noise.
I generally go step by step through a list to help guide my storytelling. You can too. Start with very general emotions and move toward a coherent story. Here are some pointers to get you started:
1. What is the most general emotion you would ascribe to the music? (Happy, sad, angry, and so on.)
2. What more specific terms describe that general emotion? Is the happy music jubilant or content? Is the sad music tragic or morose?
3. Create an emotional story arc for the music, making note of major (and minor) emotional shifts that occur. Just like any good story, there has to be ebb and flow.
4. Finally, give your story a protagonist, and decide how he journeys through each phrase of music.
Oftentimes it is enough to stop at the third step. As long as we understand the emotional journey on which we are about to take our listeners, we can be comfortable allowing them to invent their own story that fits the mood. The most important thing is that as musicians we tell a good story. Everyone likes to listen to a good story. But no one will listen if your story isn’t compelling.