Creating a Story Without Words: Parallels in Story and Music-making

Music and writing have a lot in common. You may have even heard stories themselves be described in terms of music- like beats of action, the rhythm of words, and the melody, or a voice, of an author. Throughout the years, these two disciplines have helped each other to both become powerful outlets of creativity and expression.

When polyphony, or music with more than one independent voice, became common, there was also a rising interest in composing music with a story plot. Many techniques were developed, particularly in the Romantic Era, where extramusical art forms such as books and plays were used to help musicians find an emotional truth in their work. Some of the most notable examples of famous stories written and later turned into musical works include an opera by Hector Berlioz, based on Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, and Franz Liszt’s symphony based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust.

A significant technique used in music is thematic transformation, which can be seen in works as early as Bach (where the short-short-short-long motive from his Fifth Symphony serves as a famous example). Just like how one can see a recurring symbol in a written story, thematic transformation works in the same way by using a repeating musical motive and transforming it in several ways through changes in orchestration or harmonization (ex. fragmentation, transposition, augmentation, and diminution). 

Thematic transformation was further developed by composers such as Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt, who is known to have used it skillfully to represent the main characters in his Faust Symphony. In the first movement of the Faust Symphony, we are introduced to musical motives which include “Magic,” “Doubt,” “Passion,” “Yearning,” “Love,” and “Pride”-which are central elements to the main character (Kaplan 146). A notable example of thematic transformation can be explicitly seen in the changes of the “Pride” motive during the two later sections within this movement. This includes Pride’s return in a different key after each alternation with “Love,” becoming grander in presentation, described as formally a “brass choral in m.503 to a “pompous spectacle” in m. 548 (Rose 911). Towards the end of the movement, the “Pride” movement is mocked by the activity of the woodwinds (Rose 911). These musical changes by thematic transformation reflect the change of Faust and allow music to create a story with forwarding motion while still maintaining unity.

Just like in writing, recalling earlier material is also a very powerful tool in musical storytelling. The challenge of portraying Mephistopheles is that because he can only destroy and things, this characteristic must also be reflected in the music. By taking Faust’s themes from the first movement and applying thematic transformation, Liszt describes Mephistopheles as well as the action of Faust’s soul being “mutated” into a series of devilish distortions (Rose 912), with the “Pride” motive of Faust undergoing the most profound changes through chromaticism. As the song moves forward, accented leaps and scherzo-like sections are introduced, with the motives interacting with themes of the other two characters. This includes the “Pride” theme’s return in a mockery-like setting, combined with a “Curse” motive associated with Mephistopheles (Rose, 913). This curse motive is then eventually diminished and an ending is created through the first movement’s opening triads, which are recalled and finally “resolved” through “the outlining of pure major triads.” (Rose 909).

The principle that the end remembers the beginning is present not just in written stories, but also fundamental to the success of a song. And just like in writing, recalling information through thematic transformation becomes a tool that helps to ground a reader through its familiarity and bring significance to important elements and events within a story.

Like Liszt, Berlioz also took it upon himself to create works of art based on famous written stories. In fact, it was argued that “Berlioz under the spell of Shakespeare is often Berlioz at his best” (Platinga 78). An excellent example of his revival of Shakespeare occurs in his Queen Mab Scherzo. In Act 1 of Shakespeare’s play, Mercutio talks about a Fairy Queen named Mab, who often plays pranks upon humans and is most likely the cause of Romeo’s dream. Although the Queen Mab Speech is only briefly mentioned by Mercutio, Berlioz is able to conjure an evocative story of the miniature world of Queen Mab through the power of instrumental music without using a single word.

Berlioz does this by making characteristic parallels between words and musical genres and instruments in his Mercutio’s Queen Mab Scene. He chooses an appropriate genre of music to embody the personality of Queen Mab herself: a scherzo, which is a light and playful-like passage most often used in the third or second movement of a sonata or symphony. He also decides with the principles laid down in his Treatise on Instrumentation to go with the flute and English horn:

 [The English Horn’s] tone, less piercing, more veiled and heavy than that of the oboe, does not lend itself so well to the gaiety of rustic melodies. Nor can it express passionate laments; tones of keen grief are scarcely within its range. Its tones are melan- choly, dreamy, noble, somewhat veiled – as if played in the distance. It has no equal among the instruments for reviving images and sentiments of the past if the composer intends to touch the hidden chords of tender memories.

(Shamgar 48)

A violin also further aids with the conveying of a dreamlike quality of Queen Mab: 

“The harmonics on the other strings other than the fourth string which has a flute-like character become increasingly more delicate and soft as they rise in pitch. This as well as their crystalline sound, makes them especially appropriate for those chords which may be called fairylike… fill our imagination with radiant dreams and conjure the most delicate images of a poetic, supernatural world.”

(Shamgar 49)

As one can see, there is a lot of thought that goes into something as simple as picking an instrument to portray a character, and it is for the same cautio why writers must be careful with the words they use. It is easier to read words such as drink, instead of quaff, or talk instead of ambulate; though two words can mean the same thing, one will naturally be a better choice. And for a listener, though a shrill trumpet could capture the sprightliness of a fairy, it would make much more sense to hear a soft, fluttering flute depicting to depict the poise and grace of Queen Mab. Some instruments will be more effective at conveying a certain abstract or concrete imagery than others due to differences in timbre and tone. When used correctly, these instruments can create vivid descriptions and actions of characters – much like how writers use adjectives and verbs to create colour within a story. 

 Of course, I have only touched the surface when it comes to the ability to convey a story in music. Choosing instruments, elaborating a basic idea, and recalling material are all important elements that make for good storytelling in music. One must also remember that in an ongoing battle between an artist’s pursuit to express themselves while still taking into account the demands of its audience, different mediums of art will have different techniques and goals, which can alter the original narration of a story.

However, the true beauty of music lies in its ability not only to enrich the lessons that written stories create, but can also, such as the case of Queen Mab, give prominence towards less analyzed elements- to explore doors that were previously unlocked by writing, but not entered before. Music provides a way to elevate stories, as a creation to inspire the future and revere past works- and above all, to encourage people to look beyond what is written on a page.

Works Cited

Kaplan, Richard. “Sonata Form in the Orchestral Works of Liszt: The       Revolutionary Reconsidered.” 19th-Century music, vol. 8, no. 2, 1984, pp. 142–    152. JSTOR,

Plantinga, Leon B. “Berlioz’ Use of Shakespearian Themes.” Yale French Studies, no. 33, 1964, pp. 72–79. JSTOR, Accessed 05 Jan. 2020.

Rose, Wesley I. Elon University, 2013, pp. 1–7,                               index.php/NCUR2013/article/view/620/458.

Shamgar, Beth. “Program and Sonority: An Essay in Analysis of the ‘Queen Mab’ Scherzo from Berlioz’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’” College Music Symposium, vol. 28, 1988, pp. 40–52. JSTOR, Accessed 03 Jan. 2020.

Topkin, Dayne. “Musician’s desktop.” Unsplash, Unsplash. 27 Jan. 2016,

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