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Personal Narrative Essay: How Music Changed My Life

Everyone has a passion for something, whether it be sports or public speaking. Well, for me, that passion is music. I have always loved music, and that love has increased more and more over the years. From being in music classes for most of my high school career, I have felt a lot of love and support from my friends and teachers. When I had realized the family bond there is in musical groups, I never wanted to leave. As I was often in either band or choir, I would often see the joy of my teachers when things went according to plan and when we played or sang something amazing. One piece in particular comes to mind. While in my junior year of high school, I was in the chamber choir. My choir director had introduced us to a Christmas piece called “Go, and Tell It on The Mountain.” This arrangement of the song was a very jazzy version of the original piece. After several days of practicing in class, my director stopped us and asked us if we had thought about the words and what they meant. This really took me back, as I had never really been asked such a question before. This experience let me gain more gratitude for the words we were singing, and it helped me to be more expressive and have a love for the music. By the end of singing this piece at our concert, my friends and I were tearing up at the message of joy that the song gave to the audience. I want to help students realize the joy of music and the way that it can touch the souls of the people who listen to them. I want them to feel that they can be united as a family of musicians, that, no matter what part they sing or play, each one of them matters and contributes to the ensemble. I also want them to feel how blessed they are for being able to create music with the talents that they have.

I have felt deep emotions when singing in choir in high school, but nothing has compared to having the privilege to sing in the Brigham Young University Men’s Chorus. Several times I have felt overwhelming joy or deep sadness from singing songs in that choir. For instance, one of the first songs we sang was an arrangement of “How Great Thou Art.” In that song it spoke about the wonderful creation of the earth, the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for us, and the power of the Atonement in our lives. Every time we sang that in class, I nearly wept with immense sadness and deep joy at what we were singing about. Countless times our director, Rosalind Hall, would also be in tears because she could feel the joy of music radiating from those men who sang the truth of Jesus’ Creations and His Atonement. From this experience, I have felt the power that music has in our lives and the way that it can change people.

In high school, I always considered myself lucky to be in such amazing groups with such amazing people. When I wasn’t doing as well as I thought, I would often ask myself if it was worth the effort to be in these good ensembles. When I thought about it, I would always think about what my middle school band director always said to us. He would say, “Each of you has a part to play here, each one of you matters. To this ensemble, to me, to your friends, your parents. But you should always matter to yourself.” This has stuck with me throughout all my years in junior high and high school. Even to this day, when I don’t feel like I’m worth it, I always remember what my band director said to us. I want kids to feel like they belong together, and that they matter. Not just to an ensemble, but to me, their peers, their parents, and most importantly to themselves.

I have always been told how talented I am. I’ve gotten comments from my friends, my teachers, and even my parents. Often, my parents would tell me that I should share the talents that I had with others. I had always learned in church about sharing our gifts with others, so I had always kept a high standard when I practiced, so that I could share my talents with others and make them feel happy and to help them feel joy. I have many younger siblings, and when they were all little, I would always sing to them to make them happy. This was especially apparent when I would sing to them as infants. Many times I would have to put them down for naps or calm them down when they were screaming. When I did, I would sing soft hymns to them and within a few minutes, they would calm down or go to sleep. I would often pray to God for allowing me to have this gift of music and to have the opportunity to be able to share it with others.

Music has changed my life in so many ways, and it will continue to change my life as well as others’ lives. I have seen the ways that it can bring joy into not only the lives of the audience, but to the lives of the performers as well. I have seen the ways in which people can contribute to the ensembles that I have been in. Often people don’t think that they matter or that they have an important part, but in reality, everyone is important. I have also learned about how using our talents for good purposes can bless the lives of others. Overall, music has influenced many of my decisions in life, including what college I wanted to attend. I want to be able to share the effects of music with everyone that I meet.

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Blog > Essay Advice , Personal Statement > How to Write a Great College Essay About Music (with examples)

How to Write a Great College Essay About Music (with examples)

Admissions officer reviewed by Ben Bousquet, M.Ed Former Vanderbilt University

Written by Alex McNeil, MA Admissions Consultant

Key Takeaway

Ask any admissions officer if they’ve read a college essay about music, and they’ll definitely say yes. Between music extracurriculars and academic interests in music, it’s is one of the most common college essay topics.

So does that mean that you shouldn’t write your college essay about music?

Not necessarily. But as with any common college essay topic, some approaches are better than others.

Let’s get into it.

Why you should (and shouldn’t) write your Common App essay about music

As we explained in our Stanford Items exercise , writing your college essay on a common topic isn’t off-limits. In fact, most college essays share common topics and themes. Trying to find a completely unique, never-been-done-before topic is almost impossible. And writing about a quirky topic in hopes of coming across as unique usually backfires.

In other words, it’s likely that you’ll write about the same topic as someone else.

The problem arises, however, when you write about a common topic in a cliche way . Cliches are always a danger in college essays, but in especially college essay topics that tend to surface again and again.

To avoid cliches, your college essay about music needs to be deeply personal, specific, and meaningful. You’ll want to let go of any over-generalizations or truisms and focus on the details of your own story.

Because you’ll need to write meaningfully and vulnerably, you should only write your college essay about music if you have something genuine and significant to say.

The Best Ways to Approach Your College Essay about Music

College essays about music aren’t off the table, but you should be thoughtful in how you write about them. The following two approaches will help you avoid cliches and find an authentic, meaningful story that fulfills all the requirements of a personal statement .

Writing about music as an academic interest

If you’re interested in studying music in college, then you can consider writing your college essay about music as an academic interest. A college essay about your academic interest in music can show fantastic intellectual fit with a school.

Let’s say you want to study music theory or composition. You might write about a topic you find compelling, a problem you’ve solved, or even a recounting of your journey becoming interested in the subject.

Or maybe you’re an aspiring performer planning on studying music performance. As an admissions officer, I read outstanding essays about students performing their favorite pieces, creating emotional music projects, and teaching lessons to young children.

No matter your topic, your goal with this approach is to show an intellectual spark, a curiosity and passion that will demonstrate to your admissions officers that you’ll be a great addition to the music community on their campuses.

Writing poignantly about a deeply meaningful extracurricular

The previous approach is great if you want to study music, but what if music is just an extracurricular passion of yours? Don’t worry—you can still write about it.

In that case, the best way is to focus on meaning. Remember: personal statements should be deeply-meaningful reflections on your personal strengths.

To start, reflect on your music extracurricular. Is it playing guitar in a band? Playing trombone in your school’s symphony? Learning piano from your grandma? How your love of poetry turned into a love of songwriting?

Next, think about what strengths you have to showcase. If you play guitar in a band, maybe you want to highlight your collaborative spirit. If you love poetry and songwriting, perhaps you focus on your creativity.

Writing about your love of music in a way that draws upon your strengths will make sure that your Common App essay avoids the following two approaches and gives admissions officers a reason to admit you.

Approaches to Avoid

While the following two approaches aren’t necessarily bad, they are the most cliche ways of approaching a college essay about music. You might want to consider avoiding them.

An inauthentic tale of triumph

Let me tell you a cliche story.

When I was in fourth grade, I decided to join the school orchestra. I found it exceedingly difficult at first. No matter how hard I tried, I never could seem to place my fingers correctly on the fingerboard. Every sound I made mimicked a screeching cat. But I decided not to give up. I practiced every day after school and on the weekends. By the time I was in ninth grade, I had made it into my high school’s top orchestra.

Is that a lovely story? Yes, absolutely. Is it hearty enough for a college essay? No. While it tells a good narrative of growth and progress, it remains on the surface of the writer’s life. It comes across as a convenient way to brag about your strengths instead of exploring them in a genuine way. In this example, the story also focuses on events that happened way too far in the past.

A song that changed your life

This approach is by far the most common cliche in college essays about music. We’ve all been there: a favorite song that transports you to a moment in your life whenever you hear it. It makes sense that you’d want to write about yours.

But there’s a problem with this approach. Too often, it reads as trite or unoriginal, and the end result usually doesn’t say much about the writer. And when it does, the message an admissions officer gets doesn’t typically give them any more reason to admit you. Since you want your college essay to be meaningful, even vulnerable, and strengths-based, you’re better off choosing another topic that better speaks to who you are.

Key Takeaways + Examples

College essays about music aren’t for everyone. But when you get it right, you can strike the perfect chord with admissions officers (you’re welcome for the pun).

As you go, dig deep, find something genuinely personal, and try to avoid the most common and cliche ways of approaching the topic.

Want to see some examples of college essays about music before you get started? Check out our examples, The Time Machine and The Band .

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Essay on Music for Students and Children

500+ words essay on music.

Music is a vital part of different moments of human life. It spreads happiness and joy in a person’s life. Music is the soul of life and gives immense peace to us. In the words of William Shakespeare, “If music is the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.” Thus, Music helps us in connecting with our souls or real self.

Essay on Music

What is Music?

Music is a pleasant sound which is a combination of melodies and harmony and which soothes you. Music may also refer to the art of composing such pleasant sounds with the help of the various musical instruments. A person who knows music is a Musician.

The music consists of Sargam, Ragas, Taals, etc. Music is not only what is composed of men but also which exists in nature. Have you ever heard the sound of a waterfall or a flowing river ? Could you hear music there? Thus, everything in harmony has music. Here, I would like to quote a line by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the greatest musicians, “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

Importance of Music:

Music has great qualities of healing a person emotionally and mentally. Music is a form of meditation. While composing or listening music ones tends to forget all his worries, sorrows and pains. But, in order to appreciate good music, we need to cultivate our musical taste. It can be cited that in the Dwapar Yug, the Gopis would get mesmerized with the music that flowed from Lord Krishna’s flute. They would surrender themselves to Him. Also, the research has proved that the plants which hear the Music grow at a faster rate in comparison to the others.

Get the huge list of more than 500 Essay Topics and Ideas

Magical Powers of Music:

It has the power to cure diseases such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, etc. The power of Music can be testified by the legends about Tansen of his bringing the rains by singing Raag Megh Malhar and lighting lamps by Raga Deepak. It also helps in improving the concentration and is thus of great help to the students.


Music is the essence of life. Everything that has rhythm has music. Our breathing also has a rhythm. Thus, we can say that there is music in every human being or a living creature. Music has the ability to convey all sorts of emotions to people. Music is also a very powerful means to connect with God. We can conclude that Music is the purest form of worship of God and to connect with our soul.

FAQs on Essay on Music:

Q.1. Why is Music known as the Universal Language?

Ans.1. Music is known as the Universal language because it knows no boundaries. It flows freely beyond the barriers of language, religion, country, etc. Anybody can enjoy music irrespective of his age.

Q.2. What are the various styles of Music in India?

Ans.2. India is a country of diversities. Thus, it has numerous styles of music. Some of them are Classical, Pop, Ghazals, Bhajans, Carnatic, Folk, Khyal, Thumri, Qawwali, Bhangra, Drupad, Dadra, Dhamar, Bandish, Baithak Gana, Sufi, Indo Jazz, Odissi, Tarana, Sugama Sangeet, Bhavageet, etc.

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Ellison’s Living with Music: Narrative Argument Essay (Critical Writing)

In Living with Music , Ellison’s primary argument revolves around music’s utmost significance in everyone’s life. He argues that music and creativity have a positive impact on how people perceive the world around them. However, he also shows that having too many restrictions can have the opposite effect. To prove this point, he recalls his personal experience describing how teaching children according to classical music standards can make them hate music. In Ellison’s opinion, this approach eliminates creativity and makes music much less impactful and beneficial for the person. Following this line of reasoning, he develops the argument that music is a part of life that helps people better understand themselves and enjoy their lives.

First, Ellison argues that music, in general, is a valuable instrument of self-discovery. It helps people connect with the world around them and express themselves through notes. Secondly, he compares different types of music, such as classical and jazz, showing that musical freedom is necessary. For instance, he states that strict classical music lessons might harm one’s understanding of music. On the other hand, free jazz allows people to express themselves even if the melody is far from perfect. Next, he connects music to culture, showing the contribution of jazz to the African-American community in the United States. In his opinion, it is the critical role of music to unite people culturally. Lastly, he argues that inspiration that helps people express themselves is essential in music. Moreover, he returns to the topic of jazz, showing that this music style is particularly efficient in conveying one’s emotions through notes. However, although he enjoyed jazz, he argued that everyone should choose the style that they can personally relate to. In summary, music can help people understand and express themselves, but only if they enjoy and feel the music.

  • Chicago (A-D)
  • Chicago (N-B)

IvyPanda. (2023, December 29). Ellison's Living with Music: Narrative Argument. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ellisons-living-with-music-narrative-argument/

"Ellison's Living with Music: Narrative Argument." IvyPanda , 29 Dec. 2023, ivypanda.com/essays/ellisons-living-with-music-narrative-argument/.

IvyPanda . (2023) 'Ellison's Living with Music: Narrative Argument'. 29 December.

IvyPanda . 2023. "Ellison's Living with Music: Narrative Argument." December 29, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ellisons-living-with-music-narrative-argument/.

1. IvyPanda . "Ellison's Living with Music: Narrative Argument." December 29, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ellisons-living-with-music-narrative-argument/.


IvyPanda . "Ellison's Living with Music: Narrative Argument." December 29, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ellisons-living-with-music-narrative-argument/.

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narrative essay about music

Guide on How to Write a Music Essay: Topics and Examples

narrative essay about music

Let's Understand What is Music Essay

You know how some school assignments are fun to write by default, right? When students see them on the course syllabus, they feel less like a burden and more like a guaranteed pleasure. They are about our interests and hobbies and therefore feel innate and intuitive to write. They are easy to navigate, and interesting topic ideas just pop into your head without much trouble.


Music essays belong to the category of fun essay writing. What is music essay? Anything from in-depth analysis to personal thoughts put into words and then to paper can fall into a music essay category. An essay about music can cover a wide range of topics, including music history, theory, social impact, significance, and musical review. It can be an analytical essay about any music genre, musical instruments, or today's music industry.

Don't get us wrong, you will still need to do extensive research to connect your opinions to a broader context, and you can't step out of academic writing standards, but the essay writing process will be fun.

In this article, our custom essay writing service is going to guide you through every step of writing an excellent music essay. You can draw inspiration from the list of music essay topics that our team prepared, and later on, you will learn what an outstanding essay on music is by an example of a music review essay.

What are Some Music Topics to Write About

There are so many exciting music topics to write about. We would have trouble choosing one. You can write about various music genres, be it country music or classical music; you can research music therapy or how music production happens.

Okay, forgive us for getting carried away; music makes us enthusiastic. Below you will find a list of various music essay topics prepared from our thesis writing service . Choose one and write a memorable essay about everyone's favorite art form.

Music Argumentative Essay Topics

Music essays can be written about an infinite number of themes. You can even write about performance or media comparison.

Here is a list of music argumentative essay topics. These edge-cutting topics will challenge your readers and get you an easy A+.

  • Exploring the evolution of modern music styles of the 21st century
  • Is it ethical to own and play rare musical instruments?
  • Is music therapy an effective mental health treatment?
  • Exploring the Intersection of Technology and Creativity in electronic music
  • The Relevance of traditional music theory in modern music production
  • The Role of musical pieces in the Transmission of cultural identity
  • The value of historical analysis in understanding the significance of music in society
  • How does exposing listeners to different genres of music break down barriers
  • Exploring the cognitive effects of music on human brain development
  • The therapeutic potential of music in treating mental disorders

Why is Music Important Essay Topics

Do you know which essay thrills our team the most? The importance of music in life essay. We put our minds together and came up with a list of topics about why music is so central to human life. Start writing why is music important essay, and we guarantee you that you will be surprised by how much fun you had crafting it.  

  • Popular Music and its Role in shaping cultural trends
  • Music as a metaphorical language for expressing emotions and thoughts
  • How music changes and influences social and political movements
  • How the music of different countries translates their history to outsiders
  • The innate connection between music and human beings
  • How music helps us understand feelings we have never experienced
  • Does music affect our everyday life and the way we think?
  • Examining the cross-cultural significance of music in society
  • How rock music influenced 70's political ideologies
  • How rap music closes gaps between different racial groups in the US

Consider delegating your ' write my essay ' request to our expert writers for crafting a perfect paper on any music topic!

Why I Love Music Essay Topics

We want to know what is music to you, and the best way to tell us is to write a why I love music essay. Below you will find a list of music essay topics that will help you express your love for music.

  • I love how certain songs and artists evoke Memories and Emotions
  • I love the diversity of music genres and how different styles enrich my love for music
  • I love how music connects me with people of different backgrounds
  • How the music of Linkin Park helped me through life's toughest challenges
  • What does my love for popular music say about me?
  • How the unique sounds of string instruments fuel my love for music
  • How music provides a temporary Release from the stresses of daily life
  • How music motivates me to chase my dreams
  • How the raw energy of rock music gets me through my daily life
  • Why my favorite song is more than just music to me

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Music Therapy Essay Topics

One of the most interesting topics about music for an essay is music therapy. We are sure you have heard all the stories of how music cures not only mental but also physical pains. Below you can find a list of topics that will help you craft a compelling music therapy essay. And don't forget that you can always rely on our assistance for fulfilling your ' write my paper ' requests!

  • The effectiveness of music therapy in reducing stress and pain for cancer patients
  • Does pop music have the same effects on music therapy as classical music?
  • Exploring the benefits of music therapy with other genres beyond classical music
  • The potential of music therapy in aiding substance abuse treatment and recovery
  • The Role of music therapy in Addressing PTSD and Trauma in military veterans
  • The impact of music therapy on enhancing social interaction and emotional expression in individuals with developmental disabilities
  • The use of music therapy in managing chronic pain
  • Does musical therapy help depression?
  • Does music reduce anxiety levels?
  • Is music therapy better than traditional medicine?

History of Music Essay Topics

If you love analytical essays and prefer to see the bigger picture, you can always write a music description essay. Below you can find some of the most interesting topics for the history of music essay.

  • The Significance of natural instruments in music production and performance
  • Tracing the historical development of Western music theory
  • How electronic music traces its roots back to classical music
  • How the music industry evolved from sheet music to streaming services
  • How modern producers relate to classical composers
  • The Origins and Influence of Jazz Music
  • How folk music saved the Stories of unnamed heroes
  • Do we know what the music of ancient civilizations sounded like?
  • Where does your favorite bandstand in the line of music evolve?
  • The Influence of African American Music on modern pop culture

Benefits of Music Essay Topics

If you are someone who wonders what are some of the values that music brings to our daily life, you should write the benefits of music essay. The music essay titles below can inspire you to write a captivating essay:

  • How music can be used to promote cultural awareness and understanding
  • The benefits of music education in promoting creativity and innovation
  • The social benefits of participating in music groups
  • The Impact of Music on Memory and Learning
  • The cognitive benefits of music education in early childhood development
  • The effects of music on mood and behavior
  • How learning to play an instrument improves cognitive functions.
  • How music connects people distanced by thousands of miles
  • The benefits of listening to music while exercising
  • How music can express the feelings words fail to do so 

Music Analysis Essay Example

Reading other people's papers is a great way to scale yours. There are many music essay examples, but the one crafted by our expert writers stands out in every possible way. You can learn what a great thesis statement looks like, how to write an engaging introduction, and what comprehensive body paragraphs should look like. 

Click on the sample below to see the music analysis essay example. 

How to Write a Music Essay with Steps

Writing music essays is definitely not rocket science, so don't be afraid. It's just like writing any other paper, and a music essay outline looks like any other essay structure.

music steps

  • Start by choosing a music essay topic. You can use our list above to get inspired. Choose a topic about music that feels more relevant and less researched so you can add brand-new insights. As we discussed, your music essay can be just about anything; it can be a concert report or an analytical paper about the evolution of music.
  • Continue by researching the topic. Gather all the relevant materials and information for your essay on music and start taking notes. You can use these notes as building blocks for the paper. Be prepared; even for short essays, you may need to read books and long articles.
  • Once you have all the necessary information, the ideas in your head will start to take shape. The next step is to develop a thesis statement out of all the ideas you have in your head. A thesis statement is a must as it informs readers what the entire music essay is about. Don't be afraid to be bold in your statement; new outlooks are always appreciated.
  • Next, you'll need a music essay introduction. Here you introduce the readers to the context and background information about the research topic. It should be clear, brief, and engaging. You should set the tone of your essay from the very beginning. Don't forget the introduction is where the thesis statement goes.
  • One of the most important parts of essay writing is crafting a central body paragraph about music. This is where you elaborate on your thesis, make main points, and support them with the evidence you gathered beforehand. Remember, your music essay should be well structured and depict a clear picture of your ideas.
  • Next, you will need to come up with an ideal closing paragraph. Here you will need to once again revisit the main points in your music essay, restate them in a logical manner and give the readers your final thoughts.
  • Don't forget to proofread your college essay. Whether you write a long or short essay on music, there will be grammatical and factual errors. Revise and look through your writing with a critical mind. You may find that some parts need rewriting.

Key Takeaways

Music essays are a pleasure to write and read. There are so many topics and themes to choose from, and if you follow our How to Write a Music Essay guide, you are guaranteed to craft a top-notch essay every time.

Be bold when selecting a subject even when unsure what is research essay topic on music, take the writing process easy, follow the academic standards, and you are good to go. Use our music essay sample to challenge yourself and write a professional paper. 

If you feel stuck and have no time our team of expert writers is always ready to give you help from all subject ( medical school personal statement school help ). Visit our website, submit your ' write my research paper ' request and a guaranteed A+ essay will be on your way in just one click.

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FAQs on Writing a Music Essay

Though music essay writing is not the hardest job on the planet, there are still some questions that often pop up. Now that you have a writing guide and a list of essay topics about music, it's time to address the remaining inquiries. Keep reading to find the answers to the frequently asked questions. 

Should Artists' Music be Used in Advertising?

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Essay About Music for Any Student

  • Essay Writing Guides

essay about music writing tips

Our extensive article will walk you through the complex process of writing an essay about music. We’ll present you with a step-by-step guide on conveying the subtleties of music through writing, from picking an exciting topic and doing extensive research to dissecting musical aspects and adding personal observations.

Whether you’re analyzing the historical significance of a musical era, assessing the influence of a particular musician or band, or investigating the cultural and emotional aspects of music, our guide seeks to provide you with the fundamental knowledge and abilities required to write a well-reasoned essay. Come along on this journey with us as we explore the skill of turning music’s profound message into an engaging story.

Essays about Music: Importance and Impact

Music is a profound expression of human creativity, emotion, and culture that transcends cultural boundaries. It serves as a companion, providing solace and amplifying the human experience. Its influence extends beyond individuals, shaping the collective identity of communities and contributing to global culture.

To effectively explore the world of writing about music, one must first understand the fundamental elements that constitute this universal language. The music encompasses a vast array of sounds organized in a structured manner, from classical symphonies to contemporary pop hits, traditional folk tunes, and avant-garde experimental compositions. The diversity of musical forms reflects the kaleidoscope of human creativity, and understanding this diversity lays the groundwork for appreciating the nuanced aspects of different genres and styles.

Music’s emotional and cultural impact is remarkable, as it evokes feelings ranging from joy to sorrow, nostalgia to anticipation. It is a vessel for cultural narratives, preserving traditions and reflecting the spirit of an era. Exploring music’s emotional and cultural dimensions provides writers with a rich tapestry of motifs to weave into their essays about music, allowing for a more profound exploration of the human experience through the lens of musical expression.

Choose Essay Topics About Music

The essay-writing process involves selecting a topic that shapes the narrative and allows the writer to explore the intricacies of musical expression, history, and cultural impact. There are three main ways to choose essay topics about music:

  • Selecting a specific genre or style: Each genre has unique characteristics, histories, and cultural contexts. For example, the evolution of hip-hop can be explored by examining its roots in African and African-American communities, its socio-political impact, and the artistic innovations that have shaped its trajectory over the decades.
  • Exploring the historical significance of a musical era: Music has reflected societal changes, political movements, and cultural shifts throughout history. Writers can focus on a specific period, such as the Renaissance, the Roaring Twenties, or the counterculture movements of the 1960s, and analyze how the music of that era influenced and was affected by the broader socio-political landscape. For example, an essay could explore the impact of the Beatles during the tumultuous 1960s, examining how their music mirrored the cultural upheavals of the time and influenced popular music.
  • Analyzing the impact of a particular artist or band: Focusing on the life and work of a specific artist or band allows for a detailed examination of their contributions to the musical landscape, unique style, artistic evolution, and lasting impact on music and society. For example, an essay focused on Bob Dylan’s impact could explore his role as a poet-prophet during the folk revival of the 1960s, his transition to electronic music, and his enduring influence on subsequent generations of musicians.

Understanding the background of the chosen topic is essential for providing readers with a comprehensive view of its development and significance. That’s what we are going to analyze further.

Understanding Music Essay Examples

In crafting an insightful essay about music, it is crucial to conduct thorough research. This involves using credible sources such as scholarly articles, books, academic journals, and reputable websites dedicated to music history, theory, and criticism. By drawing on authoritative sources, writers can ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information in their essays.

This involves delving into the historical evolution of the genre, key milestones, and cultural influences that shaped its trajectory. By studying the background, writers can contextualize the music within a broader historical narrative, unraveling the threads that connect artistic expression to the time’s social, political, and cultural landscapes. For example, if the essay focuses on the development of blues music, researching the historical roots in African American communities, migration patterns that spread the genre, and its evolution through different regions and eras would be integral to providing a nuanced understanding.

Understanding the cultural context of the music adds depth and richness to the narrative. Culture shapes and is shaped by music, and understanding this symbiotic relationship is crucial for a comprehensive analysis. Writers should explore the societal norms, values, and movements that influenced the creation and reception of the music they are examining. They should consider the cultural milieu, social dynamics, and even geographical influences that contributed to forming a particular musical style.

In conclusion, the research and information-gathering phase lays the groundwork for a well-informed and insightful exploration of the chosen music essay examples. By utilizing credible sources, studying the background, and understanding the cultural context, writers can embark on a journey that informs, captivates, and enriches the reader’s understanding of music in its multifaceted dimensions.

How to Write an Essay About Music – Valuable Insights

A well-structured essay about music is essential for capturing the reader’s attention and understanding of the subject matter. The essay should follow a structured approach, starting with an introduction about music essay that captures the reader’s attention with a compelling hook. This can be a thought-provoking question, anecdote, quote, or surprising fact. The thesis statement should clearly articulate the central argument or perspective of the essay, outlining the central theme and key points to be explored in subsequent sections.

The body paragraphs should be divided into distinct paragraphs dedicated to a specific aspect or point related to the thesis. Evidence and examples should be provided to support arguments, such as quoting lyrics, citing critical reviews, or referencing historical events. This helps provide a comprehensive understanding of the chosen topic.

Maintaining a logical flow between paragraphs is crucial, as it helps readers follow the logical progression of the essay and understand the relationships between different aspects of the topic. Transitional phrases and explicit connections between ideas help readers follow the logical progression of the essay.

In the conclusion, summarize critical points discussed in the body paragraphs, reinforcing the thesis statement and emphasizing how the evidence presented throughout the essay supports the overarching argument. This reinforces the central theme and leaves a lasting impression on the reader. In the Beatles essay, the conclusion might reiterate how their innovative approach to music defined a generation and left a significant mark on popular music history.

Lastly, the argumentative essay about music should leave a lasting impression on the reader by connecting the themes to broader cultural or societal implications or posing a thought-provoking question that encourages further reflection. In the case of the Beatles essay, the conclusion might invite readers to consider the ongoing impact of their music on contemporary artists or encourage reflection on the timeless nature of artistic innovation.


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Write a Strong Thesis Statement

A strong thesis statement is vital for a music essay, providing a clear roadmap for the writer and the reader. It defines the central argument or perspective, ensures clarity and relevance, and sets the tone for music essays. A concise and focused articulation of the central argument or perspective is essential, such as analyzing the cultural impact of a genre, the artist’s style evolution, or the societal resonance of a musical movement.

Clarity is paramount in a thesis statement, as it should convey the essay’s main idea in a way that the reader quickly understands. Avoiding vague or overly broad statements enhances clarity and relevance.

The thesis statement serves as the introductory handshake between the writer and the reader, setting the tone for the essay. Depending on the essay’s nature, it can range from analytical and objective to passionate and subjective. For example, if the essay explores the emotional impact of a specific genre, the thesis might set a tone of subjective reflection.

Incorporating Analysis and Critique

An essay about my favorite music requires a nuanced analysis and critique that delves into the intricacies of musical elements, assesses the impact on the audience, and allows the music writer to offer personal insights and interpretations. The music essay writing should evaluate the musical elements such as lyrics, melody, harmony, and rhythm, focusing on their poetic qualities, thematic depth, and storytelling capacity. It should also explore the symbiotic relationship between the music and its audience, exploring how the chosen music resonates with listeners, triggers emotional responses, and influences societal attitudes.

This may involve examining historical reactions, critical reviews, or audience testimonials. When you write an essay about music, you should also offer personal insights and interpretations, allowing the writer to inject their voice into the narrative and share their views of the music’s meaning. This multifaceted approach to analysis and critique enriches the narrative and encourages readers to engage with the music more profoundly, resulting in a lasting impact.

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1 How to Sing a Narrative:

Devin Nardecchia

Narrative essays come in a multitude of forms but are usually broken down into two styles: the Personal Narrative and the Literacy Narrative . A personal narrative is one told by an individual and uses experiences from their own lives, while a literacy narrative uses a piece (or pieces) of literature to do the same. In this section of the textbook, we will focus on how to use your own personal experiences and stories to convey a message through your prose.

Personal Narrative + Rhetorical Strategies

It is good to have a decent understanding of the topic you will be writing on, but it is arguably more important to know the specific message that you are trying to pass onto the reader and the intentional techniques for doing just that. One deliberate strategy is through rhetoric. Writers must have an understanding of rhetoric. According to Aristotle, rhetoric has three parts: first is the systemic study of the speaker, next is the study of the message, and finally is the study of the audience. When you write or tell a story, you should always keep these three elements in mind.

Aristotle taught his academic diciples that in order for a speaker to convince the audence of their message, one must employ multiple strategies. The three main strategies are ethos, logos, and pathos.

Ethos is described as one’s credibility and trust. In other words, why should the reader trust you or the sources that you use? What makes you or the sources that you use believable and an authority on the topic?

Logos is the use of logic and reasoning. What statistics can you show to the reader that may change their mind? How can you structure your speech to be more digestable? What comparisons or metaphors can be used to better explain the points you are making? How can you articulate what you are saying in a way that your reader can comprehend?

Pathos focuses on emotion and morals. What relatable imagery can you invoke? Do you have an example of a struggle story? What biases do you have or might the reader have?

As a bonus, there is a fourth rhetorical strategy: Kairos is the skill of adapting your persuation strategy to the situation and the use of proper timing. How do your decisions or experiences align with trends (past or present)? How do you use timing in a calculated way for others to best receive your message?

No two people are the same, and your rhetorical choices should reflect this fact. Use multiple strategies in each of your papers to ensure that you are conveying your message as effectively as you can to as many people as possible.

It’s easy to forget that while you know all the details of your story, your reader may not have any idea what you are talking about. Thus it is important to include as much information as possible in the most direct way possible. Be careful not to get lost in the weeds because you may lose the reader in the unnessesary details that are weighing down your paper.

Literacy Narrative

A  Literacy Narrative   is a story of how you became literate, how your literacy evolved, and how it has effected your life. Literacy Narratives necessitate the use of description. The topics are centered around the evolution of your speech, writing, and reading. This may be a harder essay to write due to the need to stick to the “literacy” part of the work. Of course, you could view literacy in the narrow view of reading and writing. However, if we broaden the meaning of literacy to include all forms of communication and other mediums besides books, then we may find a more tenable way to write our literacy journey.

For instance, many of us are familiar with works from J.R.R. Tolkien such as The Hobbit.  Tolkien uses a lot of descriptor words throughout the story, spending pages poring over how Tolkien describes the taste and smells of Middle-Earth almost to a point where it could slow the pacing of the story to a near halt. Someone who was influenced by his work may feel a need to over-describe details of a story that they are telling friends or family. While this may not work for casual conversation, these detailed retellings would align perfectly with retelling one’s own narrative.

On the other hand, someone who grew up in the “meme age of the internet” may find that they best communicate their thoughts and ideas with a single image with as minimal text as possible, or may use the shared collective knowledge of pop culture to use references that most would be able to understand. These writers may need to rely on adding additional sensory elements to their writing to make their ideas more evocative. Adding in taste, smell, feel, touch, hearing, and even temperature can make a piece of writing come alive.

A third example could be a story of how an immigrant learned a second or third language in order to communicate with those around them describing the difficulties of learning the nuances of their second language and the slang attached to speaking in a second tongue.

Personal Narrative citaion: College Essay Writing: Personal Nrrative, Ilinois Wesleyan WC/TS

Rhetoric: https://www.owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/rhetorical_situation/aristotles_rhetorical_situation.html

Literacy citation:

Literacy Narrative Explained

Music in Your Words Copyright © 2023 by Devin Nardecchia is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Tracing the Evolution of Rock and Roll: a Musical Revolution

This essay about the history of rock and roll traces its evolution from its early roots in rhythm and blues and country music to its current status as a global cultural phenomenon. It highlights key figures and moments in the genre’s development, from Elvis Presley’s pioneering performances to the British Invasion of the 1960s and the rise of subgenres like heavy metal and grunge. Despite facing challenges from other musical styles, rock and roll remains a powerful form of self-expression and a symbol of cultural resistance, continuing to inspire artists and audiences worldwide.

How it works

The saga of rock and roll unfolds as a narrative of fervor, dissent, and ingenuity. From its nascent origins in rhythm and blues and country melodies to its metamorphosis into a worldwide cultural phenomenon, rock and roll has etched an enduring impression on contemporary music and society. Delving into its inception and metamorphosis illuminates the ongoing impact of this genre on musicians and enthusiasts alike.

Rock and roll burgeoned in the early 1950s, amalgamating diverse musical genres such as rhythm and blues, gospel, country, and jazz.

Its advent coincided with the electrification of guitars and the adoption of amplified instruments, infusing fresh vitality into the musical landscape. Visionary pioneers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino sculpted its essence with their pulsating rhythms and groundbreaking guitar melodies, while icons like Elvis Presley mesmerized audiences with their magnetic stage personas.

Elvis Presley, revered as the “Monarch of Rock and Roll,” transcended into a global legend whose dynamic performances shattered societal norms and transformed rock and roll into a cultural beacon. His fusion of country, gospel, and rhythm and blues solidified the genre’s distinctive identity. By the mid-1950s, rock and roll had firmly entrenched itself, with hits like “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets signaling its burgeoning popularity.

The 1960s heralded an era of expansion and innovation for rock and roll. British bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones infused the genre with a fresh perspective, blending elements of rock, pop, and blues. The Beatles, in particular, revolutionized rock music with their sophisticated songwriting and pioneering recording techniques, epitomized by albums like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which redefined the album format. The British Invasion introduced seminal bands like The Kinks and The Who, enriching the genre with new dimensions.

This period also witnessed rock and roll becoming more politically charged and introspective. Bob Dylan, for instance, integrated folk and protest elements into rock with anthems like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” influencing generations of musicians. The countercultural movement, espousing ideals of peace and civil rights, found its voice in artists like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Doors. The Woodstock Festival of 1969 epitomized this ethos, uniting multitudes in a celebration of music and countercultural values.

The 1970s witnessed the diversification of rock and roll into subgenres like heavy metal, punk rock, and progressive rock. Bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple laid the groundwork for heavy metal with their thunderous riffs and commanding vocals. Punk rock, spearheaded by bands like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, rebelled against mainstream excesses, favoring short, frenetic anthems that echoed the frustrations of the working class. Meanwhile, progressive rock outfits like Pink Floyd and Yes ventured into elaborate concept albums and ambitious instrumentation.

As the 1980s approached, rock and roll continued its evolution, with new wave and alternative rock bands like The Cure, U2, and R.E.M. gaining prominence. The advent of MTV and music videos provided a new avenue for artists, propelling the careers of luminaries like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Simultaneously, bands like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses pushed the genre’s boundaries, infusing it with a heavier, more aggressive edge.

The 1990s ushered in the era of grunge with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, whose raw, unvarnished sound resonated with disillusioned youth. Their ascendancy signaled the waning of glam rock and the ascent of alternative music. Concurrently, Britpop, led by groups like Oasis and Blur, dominated the British music scene.

Today, rock and roll continues to evolve and inspire. Despite facing competition from genres like hip-hop and electronic music, it remains a potent form of self-expression and a symbol of cultural resistance. Contemporary rock bands draw inspiration from their predecessors, melding vintage and modern influences in innovative ways that underscore the genre’s enduring relevance.

In summation, the history of rock and roll stands as a testament to the transformative power of music. From its humble origins in the 1950s to its multifaceted manifestations today, rock and roll has consistently challenged conventions and expanded horizons, serving as both a reflection of society and a catalyst for change.


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Everything Is Noise

How Music Crafts A Narrative

Music has this wonderful ability to mean multiple things to a myriad of different people all at the same time. It can be an affirmation of convictions or experiences, a form of emotional escapism, or a muse to inspire. It accomplishes this through a wide range of complicated psychological principles as well as preying on subconscious listener expectations, but the area that seems to be the most salient from what I gather – and the one I wish to focus on today – is that of how narrative plays into this.

So what exactly is narrative, then?

McCabe and Peterson, in their book Developing Narrative Structure (1991), by some fashion boil down narrative to a sequence of events that describe an experience, be it literal or fictitious. Most definitions you will come across elude to much the same, with divulgences into the fields of speech, literature, oral history, and theater, alongside many other studies and mediums. Simply put, a narrative is a story . And if there is one thing the human brain is innately wired to do (and do exceptionally well), it is to seek out and understand stories.

It goes without saying that you can apply this principle to the world of music without stretching the idea as if it were off-brand laffy taffy. As I’m sure you might have guessed, this goes beyond simple lyrical devices and textual framing. Fred Everett Maus, in his article Music as Narrative (1991), manages a pretty comprehensive dissection of how instrumental music can be used as narrative, and Richard Walsh digs a bit deeper into the psychology of the topic in his study The Common Basis of Narrative and Music (2011) – if you want a something a bit more analytical.

In this way, narrative can be as small as two temporally ordered notes or as grand as any form of polylogy (yes, that is a word). At its most efficacious, music will blend the lyrical context with a diegetic musical counterpart to conceptually elevate the listener’s experience. You could then argue that narrative, in some way, becomes ingrained in the identity of music, both as it is created and consumed; two equally valid interpretations of an experience coming from the creator and the recipient.

But how do composers and musicians successfully navigate narrative when writing more contemporary music, and what is the listener’s role in this in aural monologue? Strap in and let’s find out together on this lengthy meander through musical meaning-making!

Approaches to exploring narrative

There are a handful of umbrella approaches that artists and composers use to accomplish a more effective narrative in their music. Each of these have the own individual techniques, in addition to more broad methods we will discuss below.

The self-contained narrative is a microcosm of aural storytelling, one that can span a single track or act as a single movement within a song. The former is, in essence, the basis of nearly all music. A single referential piece with a beginning, middle, and end, all in one tidy package. In the context of today’s conversation, this approach nears vapidity. The more interesting of the two here is within a movement, such as how a tonal shift from a major to a minor scale can convey a sense of loss or tension. These miniature stories can also be crafted using the negative space in music .

The thematic narrative is one that ties together a number of seemingly disparate elements with a unifying template of tone or theming. This is how Steven Wilson crafted a cohesive piece with The Raven That Refused to Sing , or how Caligula’s Horse manage to tie four smaller vignettes together in their most recent release, In Contact (I’m dating this article by phrasing it like that). In both cases, the self-contained stories are loosely tied together by a theme, supernatural stories and the personal struggles of artists respectively.

The overt narrative is the all-encompassing long-form story. The scale tips from multi-part suite a la “ Shine on You Crazy Diamond ” and “ 2112 “, to the full concepts such as Thick as a Brick or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway , and eventually to the expansive epics akin to The Dear Hunter or Coheed and Cambria ‘s The Amory Wars . These all have distinct characters that follow arcs, in which each song acts as its own larger movement in addition to the micro-movements within the tracks themselves. Most references to narrative in music refer to these, as they are the clearest example of melding music and story.

Styles of conveying narrative

As mentioned earlier, many of the techniques used for the umbrella approaches above are transferable across the spectrum. The division for which is used and when depends more on the style the music is going for than the scope of the narrative. This division seems to be primarily split into two categories: emotive and story.

The emotive style more heavily leans on tonal shifts and phrasing in music to do the heavy lifting. In discussing The Optimist , Anathema guitarist Danny Cavanagh stated: ‘ It’s like a story, it’s like a narrative, but not in the traditional sense…we don’t say exactly who this person at all and we don’t say what exactly happens to him or where he ends up or what he does in the end. That’s really up to the listener to decide that for themselves. ‘ On the whole, you could describe much of Anathema ’s music as more emotive than internally consistent, narratively speaking. The music swells and cedes, the instrumentation flutters in when needed to hit that intended feeling and then passes, all in the name of imbuing the listener with a sense of agency in interpretation.

In a more ‘of course that’s the case’ sense, barring any supplemental material such as artwork or connections to other media, instrumental music is essentially wholly dependant on this style. Fred Everett Maus (1991), as mentioned before, covers this topic fairly comprehensively, but we could easily apply this to modern instrumental – or heavily instrumental – music as well. Post-rock uses slow builds and catharsis to engage, jazz conscripts a commanding use of spontaneity to stimulate, and doom decimates by tonally consuming the soundstage. There is a whole field of study that could tell you why one progression of notes elicits a specific emotional reaction versus another, so I will leave you with this link if you want to dig in deeper.

The story-based style is far more reliant of the written lyrics, though the application of the music in this context can be far more complex depending on the intended result. The most prominent technique is how the use of language is supplemented by the accompaniment. Think the ambient loneliness Riverside conveys as it builds in “ Escalator Shrine ” alongside lyrics that suggest a faltering conviction while immersed in a post-apocalyptic, ironically-yet-unironically religious context. Consider the unbound piano laden whimsy of “ Streams ” that Haken use when introducing the mermaid figure, a harsh contrast to some of the events this character would endure. The music relies on the emotive principals from the previous style to create new meanings when paired with text.

Techniques for presenting narrative

Can you recall seeing a movie in which the events on screen were sharply juxtaposed to the score of the film? Many filmmakers will utilize this contrast to play upbeat, happy music when there is violence being portrayed. In the same vein, we can apply this technique to both impress the significance of an event or provide a bit of humor. Coheed and Cambria turn the intent of murder into a lullaby in “ Always and Never ”, while The Darkness ’s unnervingly foreboding atmosphere in “ Bald ” is used for purely comedic effect. Both are more memorable as a result of this contrast than they would have been otherwise.

Another often-used technique that has a number of implementations is the use of point of view. Rael from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Pink from The Wall are the epitome of an unreliable narrator, in which the narrative of the music is focused on their unique experience more than on the true events of what might have happened. Furthermore, shifting between character perspectives is most effectively done through an equal shift in the music, as seen in the change from the protagonist to the priests in “ 2112 ” or the narrative gymnastics between the three main characters in “ Finally Free ”.

The flip side to this equation is that lacking these or similar techniques can both reduce the impact of the emotional intention or cohesion and, more importantly, result in a less coherent experience overall. At the risk of angering many a reader here, I feel Coheed and Cambria – a band I love dearly – are a prime example of this. Claudio’s space opera is rife with lyrical acrobatics that, while well thought out conceptually, suffer from a strong lack of clarity that is only partially alleviated by the supplementation of other media such as comics and novels .  The exception to this is the fantastic The Afterman: Ascension/Descension , which not only offers a much deeper and rewarding self-contained narrative experience, but also manages to do this while having themes that are relatable to the average listener.

I’ve avoided referencing the use of outright narration seen in many fantasy or science fiction-based concepts due to the fact that while they may be entertaining or even internally diegetic at times, for the most part they come off as lazy and uninspired – not using any of the medium’s strengths to convey meaning.

Playing with expectations

Music relies on expectation and repetition. Choruses and riffs recur regularly, and listening to music more than once often garners a more positive experience as you learn the intricacies of each track and anticipate your favourite parts. As such, the motif, which at its core is a pattern or prevalent and recurring idea, is a perfect fit for how we experience music. In many ways, music is built on motifs, and we enjoy its repetition because we’ve been conditioned to this style. But I digress. The motif is a fundamental building block of narrative in music, and finding ways to incorporate and play with these patterns is a powerful tool in conveying the emotions of a story by giving the listener a something to latch on and return to throughout the experience (see Trivium ’s “ Shogun ” as a prime example).

In particular, the recontextualization of the motif is a way an artist can play with both the satisfaction of experiencing the pattern and as a subversion of expectations, heightening the memorability and overall experience. Thematically or emotively, this can be accomplished by taking a particular passage or phrase and layering on a new musical texture and imbuing a new tonal identity, such as the way the main theme is continuously revisited in new ways on Transatlantic ’s The Whirlwind . More ambitious still is when this concept is woven into the context of the story, like how a handful of lyrics and musical refrains are reused within a different perspective to imply new meanings during the first and second halves of Mile Marker Zero ’s The Fifth Row .

One additional example of how expectations can be played with to a unique effect lays in Protest the Hero ’s “ Caravan “. I’ve touched upon this topic in more depth before, as this group is particularly adept at weaving narrative into music, but it’s worth a quick mention here as well. The final passage of the song has a chant/counter-chant in which the music is laid out in such a way that the audience would repeat a caricature of an argument that Rody then goes on to refute as the music alternates. It is a novel approach to have the audience play such an active role, essentially playing the villain.

How the listener fits in

The final piece of the puzzle lies in how the listeners themselves factor into the equation. Without leaning too much on Barthian philosophy or dead authors, it is undeniable that the interpretations that the listener makes while experiencing music is an active and pivotal element in the overall picture.

Berklee Online has a fascinating deep dive into the idea of ‘ narrative gaps ’ under their Take Notes series that you should definitely take a look at if what we are about to touch on here is up your alley. The article goes into how the human mind searches for connections and ‘fills in the gaps’ with experiences they’ve personally had as an inherent search for closure. It’s lengthy and has plenty of examples to really drive the points home. This article sets a good foundation for the idea that we have as much influence on the narrative as the creators themselves.

The core of the ideas mentioned stem from spurious correlations, or when we make connections between two unrelated things and create a mini-narrative about them, such as films that Nicholas Cage appears in and consumption of margarine (see the above article). So, if we take lyric A and lyric B – even if they are unrelated – we begin to concoct a micro-narrative about them. This, in essence, becomes our interpretation of the story, and is also why it is so important that the music work in concert with the ideas being presented to more effectively convey intent.

The simplest examples of this can be found on any list of tracks with misunderstood meanings. Hit songs such as “ Imagine ”, “ Hotel California ”, and “ Closing Time ” (which is actually about childbirth, fun fact) all have a divide between the intention of the artist and common interpretations. This is magnified when the concept of the narrative is expanded to be much grander, spanning multiple songs and following various characters. With careless writing, it may be hard for the listener to effectively connect the dots, and while it can be fun to puzzle out meaning in something that is densely complex, it is equally frustrating to have a story that you cannot follow from one minute to the next.

In some cases, these gaps can work wonders in providing room to find your own meaning in something with the depth to support introspection. Returning to “Escalator Shrine” from Riverside , the stage for the scene the track paints in a literal sense is of a post-apocalypse in which people trudge day after day to pray at a shrine of escalators, presumably at a dilapidated shopping mall like the one depicted in the cover art, and the internal conflict of the collective. The song’s final few lines are as follows:

‘ We sense we’re almost there But the night comes too soon And we crawl in the dark Not ready to face up To unknowing lies We ache to go back But we can’t stop So we walk ahead ‘

There is a lot of room here to interpret the feeling of those struggling day after day, night after night. While some of the subtext regarding the current state of society is a little heavy-handed, the piece about crawling in the dark and aching to go back could mean many things. Is society in the dark now, leading to this dystopian vision, or is the dystopia itself the dark? Does the collective wish to go back to the way we have it now, or to before we began like this? Are we already on the path and this a simple caricature of us as we already are? It is undoubtedly a warning, but there is nuance in its context.

The trudge here is aptly conveyed by the sustained keys and slowed tempo of the drums alongside the shift to focus on the bass line. The guitar repeats the riff and the tone briefly touches a major scale before returning to a droning, repetitive minor riff that closes out the song. The music is in line with our expectations, a simple compliment, but its melancholic nature and repetitive drone help ensure we take this as foreboding and not optimistic or determined. It helps sell this as a fearful outcome that we have agency in.

Painting a picture

“Escalator Shrine” handles the execution of narrative well by touching on many of the points discussed in this article. It creates an aural narrative through tonal shifts and deliberate phrasing in instrumentation; its lyrics and music are aptly complimentary, and it provides enough gaps for the listener to fill in on their own. It uses the tools mentioned above to paint a picture, and hands a brush to the listener for the final finishing touches.

All the music mentioned in this article follows suit, using various techniques, styles, and approaches to craft unique emotive and story-based narratives. In turn, this narrative architecture ushers the listener in and puts the concept, ideas, and beliefs on a pedestal for the audience to take at their leisure. Narrative then becomes the crux of how this music is created, and more importantly, how it is experienced.

This was a long one, a hefty read, and I thank you for making it to the end. There is a whole lot more that can be said about this topic, but we will leave it here for now. We hope you took something away from this discussion, and if you would like to read more like this in the future or if there is a topic that you would like to see covered, make sure to let us know.

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Tyler Caldas

Tyler Caldas

Loudest noise.

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narrative essay about music

A SCENE IN RETROSPECT: maudlin of the Well – “Part the Second”

Dominik Böhmer

A SCENE IN RETROSPECT: Children of Nova – “The Complexity of Light”

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Narrative, Interpretation, and the Popular Song

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Keith Negus, Narrative, Interpretation, and the Popular Song, The Musical Quarterly , Volume 95, Issue 2-3, Summer-Fall 2012, Pages 368–395, https://doi.org/10.1093/musqtl/gds021

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The value of narratives in human understanding of the world is widely recognized. The importance of narrative is apparent in varieties of everyday storytelling as well is in written fiction, drama, spectacle and ritual, visual art and film, architecture, legal proceedings, scientific reports, and political theory, to provide only a partial list indicative of the range. Yet the popular song—one of the most pervasive narrative forms that people encounter in their daily lives—has been almost entirely ignored in the vast literature on narrative. 1 Whereas narratological methods have often featured in the interpretation of Western art music 2 and film music, 3 and literary approaches to lyrics have sometimes emphasized a poetics of storytelling, 4 theories of narrative have rarely been foregrounded in the study of popular songs. 5

In this article, I will focus on narrative to explore practices of interpretation in both scholarship and everyday discussion about popular songs. I will emphasize the intersubjective interpretation of song meanings and advocate an “intercontextual” approach to the understanding of song narratives, drawing from research that emphasizes how our knowledge of the world is cumulative and always in a process of becoming through time. Overall, I argue for a musicological hermeneutics of the intersubjective production of value, belief, and judgment. In developing this theme, the structure of this essay journeys from textuality through intertextuality toward intercontextuality. I shall illustrate how popular songs participate in the wider cultural dialogues through which historical understanding is narrated, and explore how songs connect with more personal expressions of self and individual identity.

I begin with a sympathetic critique of David Nicholls's sustained attempt to begin addressing theses issues in an essay that signals its intent in the title—“Narrative Theory as an Analytical Tool in the Study of Popular Music Texts.” 6 I will diverge from Nicholls's analytical method by suggesting that the application of narrative theory to popular music must inevitably and fruitfully move beyond the world of the text and allied media to a much wider universe. I shall briefly summarize his approach as I move toward a critique and outward from the text.

Nicholls starts with what he calls a “control level,” level 1, where “there is no story per se in the lyrics, and as a consequence there is no element of narrative discourse in the musical setting.” 7 At level 2 are songs with lyrics that include elements of narrative discourse that are not supported or reflected in a “neutral” musical setting. In contrast, level 3 refers to songs structured by a musical setting supporting the lyrical narratives. At level 4, lyrics and music are operating relatively independently and in a dynamic interactive manner to produce narrative meaning. Level 5 is characterized by a complex narrative conveyed through music, lyrics, visual imagery, along with accompanying prose and packaging.

Nicholls illustrates his typology by citing a range of songs, although in varying levels of detail. He fleetingly mentions the Beatles' “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood as examples of level 1 non-narrative songs, and passes rapidly through level 2, offering only the Human League's “Don't You Want Me,” which, despite clear narrative tensions and shifts between the lyrical viewpoints of the two protagonists of the duet, contains a “musical setting—in its unvarying melody and accompaniment textures—[that] resolutely resists any attempt at reflecting that narrative shift.” 8 At level 3, he analyzes Kate Bush's “Wuthering Heights” to identify how formal properties such as “an unexpected harmonic shift” and “harmonically unstable verses” support the narrative and “reflect the restless wandering of Cathy's spirit” 9 —a clear assumption about the relationship between formal musical characteristics and extramusical meaning, plausibly integrating lyrical interpretation with a narratological approach drawn from the study of Western art music, and also demonstrating how songs can change tense.

At level 4, the analysis is more extensive and Nicholls explores how “instrumentation and timbre rather than melody and harmony” 10 are crucial to the narrative dynamics and semantics of the Buggles' “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Eventually, Nicholls arrives at his fifth and highest level where “a complex narrative discourse is rendered through multiple media, including lyrics, music, prose, and art work.” 11 At level 5, he provides detailed analysis of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis and The Who's Quadrophenia —albums from a period (1973–74) when musicians were aspiring to be taken seriously by producing conceptual musical statements and when critics used the phrase “progressive rock” to distance such works from the stand-alone pop single (the idea of progress through increasing musical complexity is implicit in this typology). 12

I do not dispute the intricacy of the tales that are told on these albums and their supporting prose and imagery (and in similar concept albums created during this period). Nicholls's analysis of the construction of narrative through text and paratext in progressive rock is insightful and convincing. What I find contentious is the dismissal of three minutes of pop romance at level 1 on the assumption that meaning resides in and arises out of a composite of tangible, easily identifiable, and directly related “texts”—song lyrics, musical structures, liner notes, art work, and the self-consciously conceptual artistic statements made by musicians. My challenge, and the point I argue for, is that there are other equally complex narrative meanings that are emergent in and articulated to many single pop songs, due to their embedding in a broader social and cultural context. In suggesting that Nicholls's approach is unnecessarily limited by its focus on musical text and identifiable supporting paratexts, I take a cue from Lawrence Kramer's argument that narrative cannot provide a means of “illuminating musical structure and musical unity” because the very “fractious and disorderly” character of narrative disrupts the stability of a text and points outward at the real drama of performative actions (rather than the perceived drama of the music), toward the “social and cultural” tensions of the human world. 13 Narrative ineluctably leads from the text to the historical circumstances through which the meaning of texts are mediated, interpreted, and contested.

The lyrics of the song paint a typically static romantic cameo, in which the protagonist expresses his feelings directly to the antagonist. Although there are slight changes of perspective in the exhortations of verse 2 and the more reflective stance of the middle 8 (accompanied in the latter case by a new melodic and harmonic setting), the text merely amplifies the statements already made by the protagonist, rather than suggesting any actual narrative discourse. 15

Nicholls's claim can be contrasted with a perspective offered by Barbara Bradby in an article in which she analyzes the profound influence on the Beatles of the late 1950s and early 1960s girl groups. The Beatles were open in acknowledging their love of girl group music. They performed and recorded cover versions, toured with girl groups, and the influence is evident in their lyric writing (offering different viewpoints and dialogue), song structures, harmonic sequences, and use of voices (Lennon and McCartney's unison singing and the three-part harmony and vocal exchanges between Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison). Hence, the song “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—in terms of songwriting performance practice and contextually—arises within a set of musical and cultural chains that cannot be decoupled from the text if seeking to understand the narrative meaning of the song. Indeed, Bradby suggests that girl groups established a “discourse to which the Beatles had to respond. ” 16

the Beatles' declarations of love in their first few hit songs did not come out of the blue nor are they simply a direct descendant of a line of male, or even boy-group, discourse. They are a response to, and in dialogue with, the voicing in girl talk by the Shirelles of the ubiquitous female request for men to tell women that they love them. 18

Bradby's research challenges Nicholls's basic assumption: there is a narrative in the lyrics, the movement is not “static” as he suggests. Furthermore, the narrative acquires a sense of urgency through the way the song establishes an intertextual and social dialogue with girl group discourse. It is an ongoing story about male/female or boy/girl romance mediated by the popular song.

But the narrative is not just conveyed through the words. The lyrics of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” are heard through the “drama” of the music. Here I draw from Fred Everett Maus's observation that listeners often “follow” the meaning of instrumental music by drawing from a pool of knowledge that allows them to comprehend “commonplace human action in everyday life,” personifying musical sounds that become regarded as characters, gestures, and intentional actions. 19 Evaluating the application of narrative theory to instrumental art music, Maus suggests that “music may often be closer to drama than to prose narrative, offering enactments of stories rather than storytelling in the most literal sense.” 20 The drama of the music certainly contributes to the enactment of the scene in “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—providing an instrumental and rhythmic dynamic that may be heard as “a drama of interacting agents.” 21

so dense with incident that McCartney's octave jump into falsetto at the end of the verse is preempted by another shock four bars earlier: a plunge from the home key of G major onto an unstable B minor. … It was exciting, unexpected, irreverent—and in practice made to seem natural by the beatific energy with which the group belted it out. 24

Everett also writes of the “drama” created by the transitions between sections of the song and of how its textural, rhythmic, and motivic factors contribute to the song's unfolding tale. 25 Further drama is created through the vocals. Although Lennon takes the “lead,” the two composers characteristically shift between singing in unison and singing in harmony, with McCartney varying his harmonizing between the first and second repeated “middle 8” section—“And when I touch you.” This section also contains the dramatic crescendo in which McCartney's vocal dynamically interacts with Lennon's in reaching up to a faltering falsetto on the repetition of “I can't hide”; a rising phrase that Bob Dylan famously, and perhaps not surprisingly given this euphoric moment, first heard as “I get high” and interpreted as signaling a drug-enhanced peak. 26

The rhythms also contribute to the excitement, accentuated by the handclaps. On the recording, even remastered, the handclaps sound rather thin, a bit rhythmically irregular and vulnerable when compared with the later use of synthetically produced handclaps in recordings. This contributes to the sense of dramatic occasion, the handclap being a dynamic sonic presence and familiar as the most elementary way of participating in the performance of a song. The handclap is both material and symbolic, carrying associations of collective enactment, approval (applause), and a connection to childhood play. The handclaps in “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and other Beatles songs provide a signifying link to nursery rhymes and memories of childhood innocence (these are pervasive themes and influences for the Beatles). 27

The above is offered as a challenge to Nicholls's characterization of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as a song that “contains no meaningful narrative elements.” 28 The lyrics are dynamic, rather than static words on a page, and can be interpreted as narrating an everyday encounter through the interplay of sung words and dynamic, dramatically interacting musical elements. The textual narrative arises from the poetics of the lyrics, the rhetoric of the vocal performance, and dramaturgy of the music and rhythm.

Social and semiotic chains of narrative meaning connect the recording of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (along with many other Beatles songs from this period) to the songs of girl groups and the Beatles' male contemporaries. This is just one example of how songs continually enter narrative dialogues with other songs, whether or not it is conscious or intentional on the part of the songwriter. The popular song, in form, practice, and character, is never reference-free; no song can be totally “original” in the sense of having no precursors. Whether anticipated by its composer or interpreted by its listener, the song will signal, acknowledge, and pay some form of homage to its sources and inspiration.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” is integral to a broader narrative that articulates the tensions and transformations in romantic relations between boys and girls, young women and men. The song arises out of, is embedded within, and is also an intervention in the stories through which human relationships are mediated and comprehended. It is an example of how a song's meaning is simultaneously contextual and social. Or, as I now shall argue, song meanings are intersubjective and intercontextual—and the interpreting author is part of these dialogues.

Although it has become commonplace for anthropologists and ethnomusicologists reflexively to locate themselves in their work, such a strategy is rare in musicology, and can usually be found in writings in which the musicologist positions her or himself sociologically. 29 It is uncommon for musicologists to expose their esthetic preferences, musical skills, social background, educational experiences, or even the manner in which they listen to the recordings referred to in their work. Even self-defined “critical musicologists”—attuned to the theoretical and pragmatic possibilities for varied interpretation, aware that songs are mediated technologically, socially, and commercially—offer little by way of the situational context that has informed their choice of repertoire, listening strategy, and analytical approach. To pursue this, I take a critical route through three perspectives on the question of individual reception and authoritative interpretation.

I start with the concept of “subject position,” an idea advanced in musicology by Eric Clarke and Nicola Dibben when seeking to connect formal musicological analysis and critical interpretation to the social meaning of songs for listeners. Drawing the term “subject position” from its development in Althusserian Marxism and psychoanalysis (to explain the limiting and oppressive workings of dominant social structures and ideologies) and the way it was incorporated into film studies, Clarke argues that the concept of subject position allows for an understanding of how a text (a film or music, for example) is such that it “demands,” “solicits,” and “limits” the perceptions of an audience member. 30

Clarke uses this concept when comparing the recorded performance of “Magdalena” by Frank Zappa with that of P. J. Harvey's “Taut”; Dibben deploys the idea in an analysis of the songs and imagery associated with Pulp's This Is Hardcore and, through this, in arguments about the impact of Jarvis Cocker's songs. Both writers use the notion of subject position to claim a clear link between listeners' comprehension and their analytical interpretation of “musical material,” arguing that the “features of the musical materials specify the subject-position of the song.” 31

Clarke describes in detail the contrasting gendered characteristics and connotations of the sonic, vocal, and lyrical qualities of the Zappa and Harvey tracks and asserts that “subject- matter and subject- position interact in a compelling manner.” 32 Using the same concept, and citing its use by Clarke, Dibben presents an analysis of how Pulp—or specifically, Jarvis Cocker as a songwriter and singer—create a critical, if ambiguous, perspective on masculinity and pornography through visual imagery, song lyrics, use of voice, lead guitar motives, and instrumental timbres. As textual analysis of how a highly idiosyncratic musical identity containing “a bleak and ironic view of the single male” 33 has been produced through an album package, Dibben's analysis is insightful and convincing. However, to this textual analysis, Dibben adds theory drawn from psychoanalysis and cinema spectatorship, arguing that the “subject matter” of the album (lyrics as semantic statements, guitars as sexual signifiers, images alluding to the conventions of a male gaze in heterosexual pornography) is such that it “solicits” and “positions” the listener into a “place” from which their understanding of the music and imagery ineluctably corresponds with the interpretation of the musicological analyst. In the case of Pulp, this “subject position” is assumed to incorporate a cultural critique of various assumptions about the masculine response to pornography.

Clarke and Dibben offer astute musicological insights and plausible interpretations of the songs of Zappa, Harvey, and Pulp, respectively. But they both take large leaps outward when claiming that their musicological hermeneutic analysis has identified the content that positions “subjects,” assuming that their interpretations are comprehensive enough to contain the meanings with which all listeners will have to contend. The claim that analysis has revealed a broader subject position is asserted rather than demonstrated with any evidence of what other members of the audience may think about these songs. The claim to have identified the “position” of a unified and rather abstracted “subject” (all those listening to the recordings?) is based on little more than interpretation of the “musical materials.”

A different approach is offered by Tia DeNora when challenging the “concealed authoritarianism” of what she calls “armchair hermeneutics,” arguing that it ignores the way people “use” music in their lives. 34 Indeed, Clarke subsequently modified the strength of his argument in response to such an objection, claiming that a “subject position” approach can “define an area of possibilities within which different empirical individuals may take up their own particular positions.” 35 However, DeNora's response to such a caveat would seem to be that this is still speculative unless the “empirical individuals” are studied. Through her research, DeNora has repeatedly attempted to show how people use music in ways and in “positions” that are not so easily predicted. Instead of starting with the text or “musical materials” (the song, composition, or track), she privileges the circumstances. For example, she writes of how many people turn to music when dealing with difficult moments of tragedy or loss in their lives—one of DeNora's respondents listened to a Brahms concerto when recalling aspects of her relationship with her father after his death; the novelist Anthony Burgess listened to Beethoven when working out a plot for a novel; a track carefully constructed in a studio by George Michael was incorporated into the ritual of selecting and purchasing clothes. 36

If Clarke and Dibben are concerned with the determining character of songs and music—the way “texts” influence values, knowledge, and esthetic understanding—DeNora instead finds reflexively aware, freely active citizens: “Listeners are by no means simply ‘affected’ by music but are, rather, active in constructing their ‘passivity’ to music.” 37 If Clarke and Dibben seek to highlight the significant impact of a subtle guitar timbre or a quirkily vocalized turn of phrase, DeNora downplays the defining qualities of songs or concertos, inadvertently perhaps, allowing them to become little more than a secondary means toward some more significant sociological end. This is because she wants to move the argument “to a far more general notion of how different types of musical materials may afford different actors different things at different times.” 38 Yet, it then seems as if any type of music can stand in as a resource or device in a whole range of situations, and this is how it acquires its sociological value. Music becomes a means for working through an emotional difficulty, physical task, habitual routine, or intellectual problem. It appears to be no different than other “resources” we might have at our disposal, such as drinking a glass of wine, walking through a forest, smoking a cigarette, or swimming. There is something salutary in this sort of approach. After all, not everyone wants to spend inordinate amounts of time debating the meaning and influence of a lone cadence, poetic phrase, or guitar riff. But for those of us who do, and for those of us who want to argue that it is important because there is a quite profound connection between the esthetic qualities of a symphony or song and social life, then DeNora's approach comes close to breaking the connections by siding with the user's viewpoint.

An attempt to retain the link to the musical text and to acknowledge De Nora's emphasis on the varied uses of music by subjects has been offered by Chris Kennett when proposing that the meaning of any recording is variable and indelibly mediated by “the temporal, demographic, attentive, local and task-related particulars of the listening situation. … [These] … conspire to dilute the analytical meanings of the well-parsed text to such an extent that the absolute sound recording ceases to exist as an object of analysis.” 39 Critiquing Richard Middleton's wish to avoid “monological” interpretations of songs (he also targets analysis by Allan Moore and Philip Tagg), Kennett argues that “personal listening” is all that scholars can legitimately offer: “One interpretation of a recording is just that—one person's nonnormative way of understanding a musical text, arrived at through several immersive, concentrated listenings (through hi-fi speakers or headphones, without interruption or diversion) to the recording at home, or in one's office—and nothing more absolute than that.” 40

Kennett initially supports this position with reference to observations of the musical preferences and listening strategies of visitors to a wine shop in which drum and bass is playing. 41 He illustrates his case further through what he calls an “idioethnomusicology” of Herb Alpert's “Tijuana Taxi,” heard as the Leyton Orient football team trot on to the pitch prior to games in East London, the musical content comprehended though this ritual. Contextualizing his understanding of the song's meaning in relation to the unsophisticated tactics of the football team, and supporting this interpretation of the music with some highly personal details about himself (including his class background, a disability, schooling, his parents, selective life experiences and obsessions, along with knowledge of sport and wine), Kennett seeks to illustrate in detail the formation of his “personal” musicological analysis. His overall point is that “the listener's demography or prior lived experience” will “change the very nature of the text.” 42

The ironic catch in such an idio-autobiographical, obsessively existential analysis is that Kennett has arrived at such a meaning through constant social interactions—it is not quite as “personal” as he would claim. Kennett acknowledges that “the only people with any likelihood of sharing much of an overlap with my analysis of the song are fellow Orient fans.” 43 However, I would question his use of the term “sharing” here. As humans we can share in, and reach a broad consensus about the meaning, value, and ethical or political significance of many texts, artifacts, and practices without necessarily sharing the same demography or prior lived experience (this is, after all, how an understanding of language is acquired). We may never have seen the Leyton Orient Football Club play, but we may empathize with this interpretation of “Tijuana Taxi.” 44 Despite Clarke's claim that the “musical materials” can reveal the possible interpretations of subjects, I doubt whether an analysis that started with the musical materials of “Tijuana Taxi” would have led to the Leyton Orient football stadium in East London—which is, in many respects, Kennett's point.

If Clarke and Dibben avoid such variable interpretations by positing a subject position that corresponds to their analysis of selective musical materials, Kennett evades the way that many people can share a similar understanding of a song but be different in all manner of personal quirks and idiosyncrasies. 45 If Kennett makes the conditions of listening (a wine shop or a football stadium) dominate his interpretation—“the listening experience becomes the text” 46 —Dibben and Clarke offer an abstract placeless context: did they listen at home, in the office, in a car? If Kennett's fandom and esthetic choices are conspicuous due to their elevated presence, Dibben's and Clarke's preferences are conspicuous by their absence. (I might infer that Dibben is a fan of Pulp, that Clarke is a fan of P. J. Harvey but not Frank Zappa, but neither make it part of their argument.) This issue is not tangential or extraneous. Both Simon Frith and Ian Maxwell have argued, adding weight to Kennett's point, that the selection of music and musicians as objects of study and academic analysis is informed by tacit if often unacknowledged value judgments, personal preferences, and passions. In Maxwell's terms, it is the “curse of fandom”—a burden that poses problems and possibilities. 47 At the core of these contrasting positions are questions about how musicology moves outward from “the musical materials” or “text” to social circumstances, and acknowledges that such contexts are informed by personal as much as scholarly commitments to processes of interpretation.

One way of disrupting such movements, drawing from narratology, might be to make a distinction between the “point of view” presented to any listener through a text, and the way this may or may not construct a “subject position” as a set of sonic, social, and semantic possibilities from which a self may “negotiate” that text. The term “point of view” refers to the vantage point from which the story is conveyed, described by H. Porter Abbott as the “the lens through which we see characters and events in the narrative. Frequently, the narrator is our focalizer. Just as we hear her voice, we often see the action through her eyes.” 48 For example, in Lennon and McCartney's folk-style ballad “You've Got to Hide Your Love Away,” the narrator of the song is worrying that he might have lost his love, and the listener hears an exchange between the narrator and the “clowns” that are telling him to hide his love. We hear the clowns (“Hey! You've got to …”) from the point of view of the narrator. In the country blues-inflected “You've Got a Friend in Me,” the narrator sings from the point of view of the toy Woody addressing the child Andy in Toy Story 1 . In later films in the Toy Story series, the song is included, performed in different styles and arrangements, to represent the viewpoint of all Andy's toys. The song is also used in various ironic, intertextual, and self-referential ways—for example, adding a degree of pathos to the narrative of Andy's growing up and eventual farewell to toys along with the family home.

In considering the point of view, I do not need to assume that the track sung by John Lennon or the Toy Story film song constructs a position for listeners, and I can acknowledge that the songs—if rendered by other performers on albums or in concert—may offer potentials for alternative interpretations. I might hear the narrator of the Beatles' song as telling me, a listener, to hide my love away (the performance, instrumentation, arrangement, or vocal intonation along with my casual distracted attention while queuing for a drink may lead to such an interpretation). Or I might hear it as an interior dialogue, the narrator talking to himself. Taken out of its location within the films, “You've Got a Friend in Me” may be used to convey a sense of friendship between adults, or between children and an animal pet, rather than a toy and a boy. The song's ambiguity allows for these different interpretations. Indeed, the craft of songwriter Randy Newman, skilled in the art of irony and versed in screen music, and the song's use across three films by animation company Pixar, adroit at creating life histories and emotions from animated images, is a reminder of the poetic possibilities of ambiguity. In a book first published in 1930, William Empson explored the interpretive value of ambiguity, referring to “any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language” whereby “alternative views might be taken without sheer misreading.” 49 Empson argued that “the machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry,” 50 and they certainly pervade the creation and comprehension of popular songs. Yet, as Umberto Eco has also stressed, there are “limits of the act of interpretation.” 51 It is misleading to declare that all we can offer is an endless plurality of personal listening. “You've Got a Friend in Me” is not a song conveying dialogues from the French Revolution of 1789; it is not a song in support of the destruction of toys or the culling of badgers; it is not about moonlight on a stormy sea, nor does it refer to the tensions between the Romulans and Vulcans. It might perhaps be possible to explain the circumstances within which an individual may interpret the song in one of these ways—the internet provides plenty of examples of misheard lyrics and eccentric understandings of songs. But these endure as ironic anecdotal oddities—rather than convincing contributions to discussions about songs and their social resonances. 52 When considering the multiple interpretations of personal listeners, we cannot evade questions of plausibility, “misreading,” and “overinterpretation.” 53

In the remainder of this article, I argue for the adoption of an intermediate position: an approach that is attuned to the limitations of both the authoritative, monological, objective, definitive, or dominant interpretation and the pluralist, solipsistic, subjective, individual, or personal perspective. I also argue for a series of related hermeneutic and analytical shifts; from position to process, from personal and subjective to interpersonal and intersubjective, and from the located and spatial context to the historical and temporal intercontext. From metaphors of static places and locations to metaphors of movement and change—from interpretations that are fixed to locations—the clothes shop, the academic study, the football stadium—to interpretations that are changing, in process, moving through time.

In developing my argument in this direction, I am drawing from Paul Ricoeur's wide-ranging philosophical investigations in which he has stressed how self-understanding is realized through narratives that give order to the uncertainties and unknowns of our temporal existence. We comprehend ourselves and the world we inhabit through the stories we tell. 54 Our narratives include the telling of our social encounters; hence, Ricoeur's approach implies that “all communicative action must be hermeneutically grounded because it is always intersubjectively mediated.” 55 Such a Ricoeurian notion of intersubjectivity attempts to “preserve the uniqueness of self-identity while at the same time bridging the gap between self and other.” 56 Although his philosophical reflections were developed from a detailed study of literary fiction and history, Ricoeur argued for an inclusive approach to narrative, imagination, and history for a “complementarity” and a “convergence of the different modes of narrative discourse” whereby “the intersubjective field of temporal experience” bridges and connects “the most ‘fictional,’ such as tales, romances, dramas, novels, and movies, to the most “empirical,” including histories, biographies, and autobiographies.” 57

Ricoeur's hermeneutics constitute just one strand within a considerable body of writing that starts from Edmund Husserl's argument that any “objective” understanding of the world is “intersubjective.” Though there are various debates in this literature and different inflections for the term, in this essay I draw on Nick Crossley's suggestion that a focus on intersubjectivity allows for a consideration of “the fabric of social becoming,” a metaphor suggesting “a certain material basis, a corporeal intertwining.” 58

Such a process of becoming is also implied in a related concept, that of “intercontextuality” as developed by David Bloome and his colleagues in studies of how classroom learning takes place cumulatively over time (days, weeks, months, years). Understandings produced in the present are the result of interactions that draw upon existing knowledge and memories, which in the process move constantly from individual to collective. The intercontextual accumulation of knowledge through time links events in such a way that “people react not only to immediately contiguous acts but also to acts separated in time and space and they may react to a set of acts.” 59

I illustrate, explore, and develop the value of this approach with reference to the song “Kid Charlemagne,” which appeared as the opening track on Steely Dan's 1976 album The Royal Scam . In doing so, I tentatively retain a sense of “personal listening” as advocated by Kennett—not seeking to conceal myself in the interpretation of this song. But I also emphasize the intersubjective and intercontextual dynamics through which a shared understanding of the song is created—that my understanding can never be unique but always realized in relation to the actions, values, and views of other people. Due to this emphasis, I do not present a privileged “text” as abstracted song lyric or musical examples on a page; I want to convey a sense of how my understanding of this song has emerged cumulatively and intersubjectively. 60 The music can be heard, and the band seen at various freely accessible YouTube sites. I hope that my overall argument stands, even for readers unfamiliar with the specific song.

Steely Dan is songwriters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (keyboards and bass, respectively), supported by a host of accomplished varying musicians, releasing albums between 1972 and 1980, and following a long gap, from 2000 onward. In a musicological analysis of their style, Everett noted that although “nominally a rock band … the group's melodic idiosyncrasies, busy rhythmic surface, and harmonic and voice-leading techniques are direct descendants of early modern jazz, making the corpus arguably the most tonally complex of any rock music with such broad popularity.” 61 The lyrics to the songs show the influence of 1950s science fiction (notably A. E. van Vogt and Alfred Bester), along with ironists such as Thomas Berger, Philip Roth, and Kurt Vonnegut. At the same time, the songs exhibit a knowing familiarity with and referencing of harmonic, verbal, and structural tricks from the “Great American Songbook.” Of their approach to songs, Fagen explained, “We were after a theatrical effect, the friction produced by the mix of the music and the irony of the lyrics.” 62 The narrators are often deluded loners or dreamers, romantic male losers peering at life from the periphery. The influence of Bob Dylan is apparent, not only in a certain lyrical tone but in Fagen's untrained, understated, dry, wry, and slightly pinched nasal vocal delivery. Although the majority of songs are narrated in the first person, they are quite obviously delivered by characters, the songwriters operating at a knowing critical distance from “confessional” or autobiographical writing. 63

When I first heard the track “Kid Charlemagne,” I had no clear idea what the song was “about.” I responded according to my immediate points of reference at the time; so I heard a blend of disco-funk groove, insistent hissing hi-hat, and smooth bell-like resonant Fender Rhodes electronic piano mixed with the squelchy staccato tones of the clavinet (an unavoidable reference point being Stevie Wonder's influential clavinet-driven “Superstition”). I recall vocal phrases leaping out and being intrigued by impressions of an unfolding tale of tension, anxiety, and release that was in some way concerned with marginal or criminal activity from which a central protagonist wished to escape. I had only become familiar with Steely Dan a year or so prior to the release of this track and had not been following their recordings since their first album in 1972. I was not a “fan” at the time of first hearing this song (played for me by a neighborhood friend), but I was in the process of becoming one, particularly through my engagement with the album The Royal Scam in which “Kid Charlemagne” is the opening song. My decision to use the song in teaching—an experience from which I shall draw—is inevitably based on periods of intensive listening, reading about, discussion, and reflection upon the song.

Just over thirty years after its first release, in 2007, I played the song to a group of predominantly British undergraduate music students (taking pathways in both popular and Western art music) in a class in which we were exploring the different ways that songs tell stories. At the time I was not playing it with a view to later reflecting upon and writing up the experience and thus I was initially disappointed that none of the thirty-five or so students (aged from nineteen to twenty-three) had previously heard the track. I played it once without providing any context or information. I asked if anyone would like to tell me what the song was about. I found no suggestions, no one felt confident enough to publicly volunteer an opinion based on one, decontextualized listen within the unequal, constrained circumstances of a teaching encounter.

I then provided the class with a prepared lyric sheet on which I had made various notes relating to shifts of perspective and changes to vocal emphasis. The opening lines set the scene: “While the music played you worked by candlelight, those San Francisco nights … just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl, you turned it on the world.” I was attempting to introduce the class to basic concepts of narrative theory and I noted that the song begins in the past tense with a narrator seeking to occupy a second-person point of view or, more plausibly, telling the story as a first person seeking to imagine the second person's perspective; this becomes apparent with the line “Did you feel like Jesus?” Any sense of optimism evaporates at the end of the second verse when the protagonists feels his “whole world fall apart and fade away.” The third verse shifts from the past to the present tense and evokes a situation characterized by images of debt (“Your patrons have all left you in the red”), death (“Low-rent friends are dead”), and deception. The second-person “you” is still being addressed by a first-person “I,” a detached commentator on events. The last verse remains in the present tense, but the point of view shifts; the narrator has quite clearly become an anxious participant (“Clean this mess up else we'll all end up in jail”). Throughout the song the chorus returns with the “Get along, get along Kid Charlemagne” refrain (more or less chanted, rhythmically in unison, the harmonies mixed down). Each time, it acquires additional resonances, as the plot progresses through the verses, from its first appearance, which may be interpreted as a colloquial “Get along with you,” to its appearance after the final verse, which may be heard as “Get out of here.” 64

Having circulated lightly notated lyrics, I played the recording through again. The second listen allowed for a discussion and, quite quickly, a debate that moved toward an interpretation of the song. There were various opinions about just what was being manufactured—the literal production of a blend of “diamonds” and “pearls” in the lyric was quickly discounted. It was not long before the conversation reached a point where the class agreed that the song was about the production of illegal drugs. The students had quite clearly been drawing on their existing “intercontextual” knowledge of songs, references to drugs in popular culture, and a range of related experiences and information.

When the class conversation reached this point, I intervened more directly and explained how the lyrical narrative of “Kid Charlemagne” can be interpreted as making direct references to a period in the life of Owsley Stanley, who manufactured and supplied LSD to the counterculture during the 1960s. His identity is partially camouflaged in lyrics that evoke the name of (“Kid”) Charlemagne—setting in play associations with a historical figure, Charles the Great. Stanley, feted as the first “underground” chemist to produce LSD, was reputed to have produced and supplied over a million doses. Contemporary connoisseurs of the drug praised its apparent purity, a quality alluded to in the song's lyrics. A further infamous incident has Stanley being arrested after his car ran out of gasoline. Whether or not this is apocryphal, the lyrics mention this (“Is there gas in the car?”). Shortly after the album's release, the rock critic Max Bell described the stance in the lyrics as “unromantic, precise and factual” arguing that the song does not convey “any mood other than ambivalence.” 65

When I suggested that the drug in question was LSD and offered these background details of Stanley Owsley, I received a mixed reaction from the class. Some students were excited and intrigued by the narrative, whereas others were mildly shocked that the drug was portrayed from the perspective of a manufacturer and participant. There was some disagreement about whether the song might be interpreted as a morality tale in which the villain got his comeuppance, an endorsement of the drug or an ethically neutral and factual portrayal of the protagonists. Consistent with Bell's view of the song's ambivalence, such responses were also indicative of how changing attitudes toward and experiences of drugs among students have subsequently inflected interpretations of the song. John Markert's study of “drug lyrics in popular music,” drawing on interpretations of lyrics and opinion surveys over a forty-year period, suggests that though LSD tended to be uncritically celebrated in songs of the late 1960s, an uncertainty crept in by the middle of the 1970s (when “Kid Charlemagne” was released) which then turned to more negative judgments and critical portrayals in the 1980s. 66

Although lyrics will inevitably play an important part in the discussion of the meaning of popular songs, the music and rhythms also aroused comment. The class included accomplished musicians, and without prompting students remarked on the use of jazz chords and judged the effectiveness of certain chord sequences. “Kid Charlemagne” opens with a repeated C7(#9) chord before dropping to an unexpected A minor, as if moving down into a song world we might not have anticipated. This is followed by what might be heard as a “predictable” Aeolian fall from A minor through G, then to F, but this is undercut by a subsequent move to a Bb7(add6) before returning to the A minor. 67 Though the chords cannot necessarily be identified precisely on one or two listens, the disruption of this sequence (along with the opening) was heard as conveying a sense of unease and melodrama and was judged by the students as integral to the narrative. Some students observed how the drums are used in the song to convey urgency and desperation. Also singled out was an extended virtuoso guitar solo performed by Larry Carlton that forms a bridge between verses 2 and 3: an instrumental interlude that allows for a segue from the narrator as detached observer to anxious participant, personifying the narrator's changed demeanor and point of view—from flowing melodic calm through hesitation to anxiety.

I subsequently followed up the more or less spontaneous classroom conversation by researching exchanges about this song in various internet forums and by talking with other trained and nontrained music listeners. 68 I have found comparable, yet often more intense and elaborated exchanges about this song among fans, individuals usually more knowledgeable of the band and aware of Steely Dan's blend of musical characteristics, lyrical concerns, attention to details, and idiosyncratic sensibility.

Steely Dan albums are constructed with an awareness of how their songs, composed for recordings, are listened to hundreds of times by fans, which influences the insertion of musical and lyrical references to obscure jazz recordings, novels, real events, and people, along with sonic and verbal quotes, puns, and allusions. The meaning of songs and their lyrics is not acquired through one listen. It builds up from repeated listens. As I mentioned earlier, lyrics may be misunderstood or incomprehensible on a first listen. The listener might initially respond to the texture or grain of a particular voice, to the words as nonsemantic sounds to prominent key words. Lyrics assume greater significance and accumulate meaning with repeated listening, from discussions with other fans, and from reading commentaries, criticism, and interviews. Fans of all genres, musicians, and aspiring songwriters may copy lyrics into notebooks, or type them up (just as older composers copied out scores by hand), amending their versions as a result of repeated listening and conversations with others.

The interpretative activities of Steely Dan fans are evidenced in an “anecdotal survey” conducted by journalist Robert Toth. He provides an insight into the intensity with which fans listen to and follow up lyrical and musical references and illustrates the way fans think of their engagement with the songs as part of a “musical education.” Toth's interviewees valued Steely Dan for their “irreverence and complexity,” their “cynicism and humor,” and “craftsmanship.” Most fans developed a love of the band incrementally through an ongoing process rather than through one epiphanous moment, although epiphanies—“musical awakenings”—were recounted on some of the fans' trajectories. 69 Toth illustrates how musicians offer a point of identification—in this case for those who sense an affiliation to the wry, knowing “outsider” stance. 70 He also provides illuminating examples of the time and effort committed by devotees when interpreting the musical and lyrical reference points, entailing intersubjective dialogues with others that contribute to “a special vibe among Steely Dan fans.” 71

During the class discussion, I had to admit to the students that I did not have answers to some of the specific questions they raised about drugs and the counterculture. Having encountered the LSD manufacturer “Kid Charlemagne,” it was but a short step to questions concerning other songs about LSD and to writings about the counterculture. The students were seeking to bring their own partial knowledge of history to bear on the interpretation of a song, and this was meeting with my own limited knowledge of songs and this period in history. For me, it was a concrete, tangible everyday experience that illustrated how songs are both imaginative fictions and part of intersubjective dialogues about history. My immediate response was to find out more—to research further details about the counterculture, and songs about LSD and Owsley Stanley.

An obvious reference point is Sheila Whiteley's analysis of songs and the counterculture, in which she notes that though some songwriters (like novelists and poets) sought to directly evoke their experience of taking LSD, often informed by a mystical or metaphysical quest for philosophical enlightenment, far more followed a fad for creating psychedelic-sounding records. The psychedelic esthetic sought to emphasize a heightened awareness of the senses (represented through exaggerated use of echo and effects in sound production, and intensely bright timbres); a distorted sense of reality (sounds oscillating or hanging suspended before fading); the synesthetic merging of the senses and the evocation of innocent, fairy-tale or dream-like states of consciousness, conveyed through surreal lyrics, and the use of echo, reverb, dramatic and sudden edits, collages, or abrupt changes of tempo or timbre. 72

Any popular song that concerns the drug LSD will establish links to an identifiable body of songs. But “Kid Charlemagne” is unusual because it narrates the activities of a very specific character actively making and supplying the drug. It does not attempt to evoke the drug experience, nor does it incorporate any form of psychedelic coding. Indeed, its jazz harmonies and voicing, along with disco and funk elements, offset any overt rock elements that might be associated with the electric guitar. Musically, a distance is created from the evocation of the LSD experience.

Lyrically, the activities of the central protagonist Owsley Stanley are narrated with a degree of distance from the experience of taking the drug and are consonant with how he has been portrayed in historical accounts of the period. In a book subtitled “LSD and the American dream,” Jay Stevens devotes a chapter titled “The Alchemist” to Stanley, claiming that Newsweek compared him to Henry Ford. He portrays him as a talented, eccentric, intelligent man with many theories feeding a mission to “save the world by making the purest and cheapest and most abundant LSD possible.” 73 Stevens charts how a mixture of ideas circulating from chemistry, Eastern mysticism, and literary creativity fed a belief that “Owsley's career as an underground chemist was graced by divine approval” 74 —in the words of the Steely Dan song, he may well have “felt like Jesus.” Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain, in a similar way, portray a man who, in the hippie district of Haight-Ashbury, was known as “the unofficial mayor of San Francisco” and “cultivated an image as a wizard-alchemist whose intensions with LSD were priestly and magical.” 75 The backdrop to Stanley's activities was a sharp contrast between the will to change the world “for all” through collective political engagement with civil rights and antiwar protest and the desire for “tuning in and dropping out,” which offered the individual a solipsistic “promise of transcendence of that world.” 76

The ironies, contradictions, and absurdities are registered in three songs of the period. Stanley had been an audio engineer for the Grateful Dead and is credited with making a significant contribution to their live sound. In 1966, the Grateful Dead began performing a song with the title “Alice D Millionaire” (a play on words that wryly cites the newspaper headline following Stanley's first arrest, “LSD Millionaire Arrested”). Musically, a mid-paced folk-rock arrangement, the lyrics to the song address a “girl” (Alice), but there can be little doubt that the third person is Owsley Stanley, as the lyric narrates the moment when his world was falling apart and fading away, opening by evoking a protagonist living in a “world of trouble” and moving on to suggest that his secret is out, “the walls are closing in” and “the wheel of fortune has a flat tire”—another reference to the infamous car breakdown that facilitated Stanley's arrest.

This largely sympathetic or neutral account might be heard alongside Frank Zappa's sarcastic “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” which appeared on We're Only in It for the Money , an album that pastiched the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and ridiculed hippies, the counterculture, and the “summer of love.” An arch and fussy musical arrangement, incorporating references to R&B along with modernist art music, “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” opens with a naïve first-person narrator declaring that he will “drop out” and go to San Francisco, purchase “a wig and sleep on Owsley's floor,” and continues to ridicule through images of “phony” stoned hippies and “psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.”

A further commentary is provided in the song “Mexico” recorded by Jefferson Airplane in 1970 and written by Grace Slick. Another typically mid-paced folk-rock song, it opens with the words “Owsley and Charlie, twins of the trade,” celebrating the impact of drugs on the poetic imagination and narrating attempts to stop the transport of marijuana from Mexico into the United States. Caricaturing a man only referred to as “Richard” who aspires to be king (almost unambiguously then U.S. president Richard Nixon), it pays respect to drug suppliers and proclaims Owsley to be a “legend” for providing “righteous dope.”

Zappa's mockery, the Grateful Dead's melancholy, Grace Slick's homage, and the docudrama of “Kid Charlemagne” all contribute to the cultural history of this period, mediating evaluations and commentaries on people and events, making a modest but not insignificant addition to an enduring series of (by no means consensual) narratives about the drug culture of San Francisco, its peculiarities and characters, its utopian dreams and instabilities, and its subsequent decline. “Kid Charlemagne” conveys a specific interpretation of history, provides a particular memory of events, and offers a critical commentary on a protagonist who rapidly moves from being likened to “Jesus” to being “obsolete.”

Historical knowledge and understanding of any period is acquired, accumulated, and enstoried—narrated—through a panoply of cultural forms of which songs are an important part. “Kid Charlemagne” contributes to the conversations through which the past is documented and debated. As a song, it is one cultural form playing a part in the mediation of historic events to music fans now and to future historians. The song remembers, retells, and reevaluates. It links together a particular series of events, experiences, and moments in time, dramatizing these musically and lyrically. The meaning of “Kid Charlemagne” does not reside solely in its textual characteristics: the musical or textual “materials” of this song cannot manipulatively position us as “subjects.” Equally, its meaning cannot be liberated by idiosyncratic social use or solipsistic personal listening strategy. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Kid Charlemagne”—and any other popular song—is always part of an intersubjective, intercontextual conversation, during which interpretation is in progress, forever moving through the time—proffered, debated, adopted as plausible, or discarded as improbable.

Meaning is a communal cocktail. There is no writer who writes something and then has the fascistic ability to dictate how it is perceived, y'know? That doesn't exist. And then you, as the artist, can react to your listener's responses. You can talk about it, you can speak before it, you can play it a different way. … It becomes part of an ongoing conversation. A conversation that is never truly over … once it is released, it literally is released . It's gone free. And as such, even though you're its creator, you are now part of the community that is discussing, fighting, arguing, enjoying the conversation over its meaning. You may have an ace up your sleeve in that you can go out and play it a certain way on another night, but then you are simply adding to that conversation, you are never going to completely define that conversation—no one really can. 77

The interesting point for me about this quote is not that it highlights the way songs are open to different interpretations, which is by now a commonplace. Instead, it is the way Springsteen acknowledges that the meaning of songs emerge cumulatively, in an unfinished way as part of an intersubjective, intercontextual, and “communal” conversation (which does not need to imply a “community” in any united or shared sense of the term). Such “conversations” are typical of how the narrative meanings of songs are understood.

Narratives—the stories we tell about our experiences, observations, and imaginings—cannot be comprehended and constrained within or by any one text. Hence, my discussion of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as an example of the difficulty of defining a “non-narrative” popular music text. Songs are produced and perceived within grids of intertextuality and intercontextuality—semiotics chains, networks of social encounters within which interpretations are proposed, debated, accepted, or rejected, a dialogue that continues into the future.

I have followed Ricoeur in arguing that we humans narrate our daily triumphs and tribulations through fictions and histories that are both personal and collective. Interpretation and narrative are intersubjective. But this does not mean that all subjects and their interpretations are equal. The sociology of cultural production provides persuasive evidence of how opportunities are shaped by social environments and institutions, structuring and mediating individual and group abilities to participate in such hermeneutics—whether the strictures of religious orthodoxies, the commercial imperatives of business, or the regulatory regimes of state organizations. Yet, to paraphrase Springsteen, such institutions and forces cannot define or control the conversation. The examples I have chosen to cite in this article are droplets from a pool of countless songs that continually cross, consume, and confuse the boundaries between fact and fiction, between the empirical and the imaginative, between documentary and drama, and between reality and its representation.

Keith Negus, Professor of Musicology, Goldsmiths, University of London, London, UK, entered higher education as a mature student, having spent many years playing keyboards and guitar in a variety of bands. He completed a PhD study of the music industry and subsequently taught at the Universities of Leicester and Puerto Rico before moving to Goldsmiths. His books include Producing Pop (1992), Music Genres and Corporate Cultures (1999), and Bob Dylan (2008).

The author thanks the Universal Music Corporation for permission to quote from “Kid Charlemagne.” Words and Music by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Copyright © 1976 Universal Music Corp. Copyright renewed. All Rights Reserved.

For just one example of this neglect, see the conspicuous absence of song and music in H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

For overviews, see Emma Kafalenos, “Overview of the Music and Narrative Field,” in Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling , ed. Marie-Laure Ryan (London: Routledge, 2004), 275–82; and Fred Everett Maus “Narratology, Narrativity,” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40607 . For an influential approach that seeks to extend or overcome the perceived limitations of formal analytical approaches without moving away from a focus on the text, see Carolyn Abbate, Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991). For a critique of a narrative approach to Western art music, see Jean-Jacques Nattiez, “Can One Speak of Narrativity in Music?” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 115, no. 2 (1990): 240–57, trans. Katharine Ellis. For a further intervention and contextualization of the above, see Fred Everett Maus, “Classical Instrumental Music and Narrative,” in A Companion to Narrative Theory , ed. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 466–83.

Most notable and influential here is Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies, Narrative Film Music (London: BFI, 1988).

The application of literary criticism has been notable in approaches to the lyrics of Bob Dylan. See, for example, Aidan Day, Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988); and Christopher Ricks, Dylan's Visions of Sin (London: Viking, 2003).

It is striking how little sustained scholarly attention has been devoted to the song as a form of storytelling. Notable exceptions to this neglect include Simon Frith's brief mention of narrative in his argument about the importance of treating songs and their reception as performances in Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Jocelyn Neal's study of country music songwriting since the 1980s, “Narrative Paradigms, Musical Signifiers, and Form as Function in Country Music,” Music Theory Spectrum 29, no. 1 (2007): 41–72; Serge Lacasse's equally focused and detailed case study of Eminem, “Phonographic Narrative Strategies in Eminem's ‘Stan’” (2007), http://www.charm.rhul.ac.uk/content/events/s4Lacasse.text.pdf ; Robynn Stilwell's study of the use of Phil Collins's “In the Air Tonight” in television and film narratives, “‘In the Air Tonight’: Text, Intertextuality and the Construction of Meaning,” Popular Music and Society 19, no. 4 (1995): 67–103.

David Nicholls, “Narrative Theory as an Analytical Tool in the Study of Popular Music Texts,” Music & Letters 88, no. 2 (2007): 297–315.

Nicholls, “Narrative Theory as an Analytical Tool,” 301.

Nicholls, “Narrative Theory as an Analytical Tool,” 302. Space does not permit an extended engagement with this specific track, but it strikes me that this characteristic quality—an “unvarying melody”—may actually contribute to the narrative tension by offering a moment that appears to be suspended or caught in the present: the ennui of that sensation of “don't you want me?”

Nicholls, “Narrative Theory as an Analytical Tool,” 303.

Various aspects of progressive rock are debated in Kevin Holm-Hudson, ed., Progressive Rock Reconsidered (London: Routledge, 2001).

Lawrence Kramer, “Musical Narratology: A Theoretical Outline,” Indiana Theory Review 12 (1991): 141–62, at 162.

The use of existing songs as inspiration or models for “new” songs is an issue that frequently crops up in Paul Zollo's collection of interviews, Songwriters on Songwriting , 4th ed. (New York: Da Capo, 2003).

Barbara Bradby, “‘She Told Me What to Say’: The Beatles and Girl-Group Discourse,” Popular Music and Society 28, no. 3 (2005): 359–90, at 360. Emphasis in original.

Bradby, “She Told Me What to Say,” 373.

Bradby, “She Told Me What to Say,” 377.

Fred Everett Maus, “Music as Drama,” Music Theory Spectrum 10, no. 1 (1988): 56–73, 65–66.

Maus “Narratology, Narrativity,” 2.

Maus, “Music as Drama,” 73.

Walter Everett, The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 200–1.

Dominic Pedler, The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles (New York and London: Omnibus Press, 2003), 110–12.

Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties (London: Fourth Estate, 1994), 76.

Everett, The Beatles as Musicians, 202.

Cited in MacDonald, Revolution in the Head , 78. See also Howard Sounes, Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan (London: Black Swan, 2001), 198.

For further discussion of this point, see various sections of Wilfrid Mellers, Twilight of the Gods: The Beatles in Retrospect (London: Faber and Faber, 1973); and Keith Negus, Bob Dylan (London: Equinox, 2008), 75.

Nicholls, “Narrative Theory as an Analytical Tool,” 297.

See, for example, Tom Perchard, Lee Morgan: His Life, Music and Culture (London: Equinox, 2006).

Eric F. Clarke, “Subject-Position and the Specification of Invariants in Music by Frank Zappa and P. J. Harvey,” Music Analysis 18, no. 3 (1999): 347–74. Clarke draws from its use in the study of film. It is debatable whether the political imperatives that informed the development of the concept in Marxism were retained in film studies. The link to ideological critique and political praxis has almost disappeared on its journey into music analysis.

Clarke, “Subject-Position and the Specification of Invariants,” 354.

Clarke, “Subject-Position and the Specification of Invariants,” 371.

Nicola Dibben, “Pulp, Pornography and Spectatorship: Subject Matter and Subject Position in Pulp's This Is Hardcore ,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 126, no. 1 (2001): 83–106.

Tia DeNora, Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Eric F. Clarke, Ways of Listening: An Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 124.

Tia DeNora, After Adorno: Rethinking Music Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 63, 73, 112.

DeNora, After Adorno , 92.

DeNora, After Adorno , 154.

Chris Kennett, “Is Anybody Listening?” in Analyzing Popular Music , ed. A. Moore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 207–8.

Chris Kennett, “A Tribe Called Chris: Pop Music Analysis as Idioethnomusicology,” Open Space Magazine 10 (2008): 8–19, 13.

Kennett, “Is Anybody Listening?.”

Kennett, “A Tribe Called Chris,” 17.

“Empathy” being a key concept in Edmund Husserl's development of the notion of “intersubjectivity.”

A similar idea to this notion of shared understanding is being explored and developed by Nick Reyland through his “listener-response theory” in “Listening for the Plot: Towards a Reader-Response Theory of Musical Narrativity,” Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts Research Seminar, 8 June 2010.

See Ian Maxwell “The Curse of Fandom: Insiders, Outsiders and Ethnography,” in Popular Music Studies , ed. David Hesmondhalgh and Keith Negus (London: Arnold, 2002), 103–16. See also Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative , 66.

William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of Its Effects in English Verse (1930; London: Chatto & Windus, 1953), 1, x.

Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity , 3.

Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), 6.

See, for example, The Archive of Misheard Lyrics, http://www.kissthisguy.com .

See Umberto Eco, Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler, and Christine Brooke-Rose, Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

See Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative , vols. 1–3, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984–88); Paul Ricoeur “Narrated Time” (1984), in Mario J. Valdés, A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991). See also Richard Kearney, “Narrative Imagination: Between Ethics and Poetics,” in Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action , ed. Richard Kearney (London: Sage, 1996).

Mara Rainwater, “Refiguring Ricoeur: Narrative Force and Communicative Ethics,” in Kearney, Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action, 107.

David Rasmussen, “Rethinking Subjectivity: Narrative Identity and the Self,” in Kearney, Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action , 160.

Paul Ricoeur, “Can Fictional Narratives Be True?” Analecta Husserliana 14 (1983): 3–19, esp. 4, 14, 3.

Nick Crossley, Intersubjectivity: The Fabric of Social Becoming (London: Sage, 1996), 173–74.

David Bloome, Marlene Beierle, Margaret Grigorenko, and Susan Goldman, “Learning over Time: Uses of Intercontextuality, Collective Memories, and Classroom Chronotopes in the Construction of Learning Opportunities in a Ninth-Grade Language Arts Classroom,” Language and Education 23, no. 4 (2009): 313–34, at 314.

Those unfamiliar with this song can readily access the lyrics at http://www.steelydan.com/lyrroyalscam.html#track1 .

Walter Everett, “A Royal Scam: The Abstruse and Ironic Bop-Rock Harmony of Steely Dan,” Music Theory Spectrum 26 (2004): 201–35, at 201.

Cited in Bruce Pollock and John Stix, “Introduction,” in Steely Dan Complete (Miami: Universal Music Publishing/Warner Bros., 1995), 2. See also Ben Williams, “Influences: Donald Fagen,” New York Magazine , 19 March 2006, http://nymag.com/arts/popmusic/profiles/16453/ .

For an extended discussion of this point, see Don Breithaupt, Aja (New York: Continuum, 2007).

Jocelyn Neal highlights the structural principles of songwriting in country music: repeated choruses in which the lyrical text does not change and “must continue to be relevant after the song's plot has progressed through additional verses.” “Narrative Paradigms, Musical Signifiers, and Form as Function in Country Music,” 45.

Max Bell, “Steely Dan,” New Musical Express , originally published 13 August 1977, available at http://www.rocksbackpages.com , article ID 11904.

John Markert, “Sing a Song of Drug Use-Abuse: Four Decades of Drug Lyrics in Popular Music—From the Sixties through the Nineties,” Sociological Inquiry 71, no. 2 (2001): 194–220.

Becker's and Fagen's songs use harmonies and voicing, and transitions to chords and keys that would be unexpected in conventional rock sequences. This may destabilize or broaden the tone, inflecting lyrics with an ominous or disconcerting mood. For further discussion, see Everett, “A Royal Scam: The Abstruse and Ironic Bop-Rock Harmony of Steely Dan”; and Breithaupt, Aja.

For an insight into fan discussions about the meaning of songs, and the way conflicting interpretations are debated and resolved, see, for example, http://www.songmeanings.net and http://www.songfacts.com .

Robert J. Toth “A World of My Own,” March 2000, http://www.steelydan.com/toth.html .

Paul Clements has written of his own enthusiasm for Steely Dan's “outsider hip” and “cult” status: “In my own case of adolescence in a small town in England, this music alongside a range of other less mainstream popular music forms represented creative aspiration (especially a career as a jazz or rock musician). … Steely Dan … represented a complex and sophisticated popular music championed in the main by a predominantly male grouping which identified with the jazz/beat lifestyle.” See “Cultural Legitimacy or ‘Outsider Hip’?: Representational Ambiguity and the Significance of Steely Dan,” Leisure Studies 28, no. 2 (2009): 189–206, at 196.

Toth, “A World of My Own.”

Sheila Whitely, The Space between the Notes: Rock and the Counter-Culture (London: Routledge, 1992).

Jay Stevens, Storming Heaven, LSD and the American Dream (New York: Grove Press, 1987), 311.

Stevens, Storming Heaven , 313.

Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond (New York: Grove Press, 1992), 146.

Christopher Gair, The American Counterculture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 134.

Keith Cameron, “Leader of the Pack,” Mojo 201 (August 2010): 76–86, 84.

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Home — Essay Samples — Entertainment — Song Analysis — Reflective Essay About Music


Reflective Essay About Music

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Published: Mar 14, 2024

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Student Essay: "Preparing for My School Musical"

As told to an ETM Partner School Teacher

“Have you ever imagined standing on a stage with your friends, music playing, the band playing, your favorite music teacher and a huge audience?

Well, I experienced it!

Last year [in 2018] in my school we had a concert. The stage was decorated, students were wearing sunglasses, and it felt good to be up there in front of my family and with my friends. There were all types of instruments being played during the concert. I learned a lot about music and instruments.

While I was on the stage, I felt nervous, but it was great standing next to my friends. We all had to wear the same color. We looked good! We wore yellow and red shirts. I sat in the front of the stage because I had a solo. My music teacher taught me a special song. I held the microphone, took a deep breath, and knew that she and my family were proud of me .

As I sang the song, I remember all of the hard work it took for us to perform at the show. I remember staying after school and rehearsing. It made me feel proud of myself, my friends, and my school.

During the concert the students were singing, the band was playing, parents were cheering, and some of the kids were playing the piano and drums. I was smiling and felt happy to be on stage because I enjoy music and acting.

My music teacher selected me to be a part of the 4th grade chorus and I have a speaking role as a king named “Gilgamesh.” This is a role for my school’s musical called, “Dig it!”

I am learning so much from the music program at my school and concerts . I learned lyrics, dance moves, songs, breathing techniques and notes. All of our songs for the concert were about spring time. I also learned that being on the stage is fun. I would like to learn more about music and I also want to join my school’s 5th grade band next year.”

– Bronx partner school student, age 9

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narrative essay about music

Narrative Essays

Narrative: The spoken or written account of connected events; a story

Narrative Introductions

The introduction of a narrative essay sets the scene for the story that follows. Interesting introductions—for any kind of writing—engage and draw readers in because they want to know more.

Since narratives tell a story and involve events, the introduction of a narrative quite often starts in the middle of the action in order to bring the reader into the story immediately, as shown in examples 1, 3, and 5 below. Other effective introductions briefly provide background for the point of the story—often the lesson learned—as in 4 below and the first example on the reverse side.

Below are some strategies for writing effective openings. Remember your introduction should be interesting and draw your reader in. It should make your audience want to read more. If it's a person , begin with a description of the person and then say why that person mattered. If it's an event , begin with the action or begin by reflecting back on why the event mattered, then go into the narrative.

  • "Potter...take off!" my coach yelled as I was cracking yet another joke during practice.
  • Why do such a small percentage of high school athletes play Division One sports?
  • It was a cold, rainy night, under the lights on the field. I lined up the ball on the penalty line under the wet grass. After glancing up at the tied score, I stared into the goalkeeper's eyes.
  • My heart pounds in my chest. My stomach full of nervous butterflies. I hear the crowd talking and names being cheered.
  • Slipping the red and white uniform over my head for the first time is a feeling I will never forget.
  • "No football." Those words rang in my head for hours as I thought about what a stupid decision I had made three nights before.
  • "SNAP!" I heard the startling sound of my left knee before I ever felt the pain.
  • According to the NCAA, there are over 400,000 student-athletes in the United States.

Narrative Story

  • Unified: Ensure all actions in your story develop a central idea or argument.
  • Interesting: Draw your readers into your scene(s), making them feel as if they're experiencing them first-hand.
  • Coherent: Indicate changes in time, location, and characters clearly (even if your story is not chronological).
  • Climactic: Include a moment (the climax) when your ending is revealed or the importance of events is made clear.
  • Remember the 5 W's : Who? What? When? Where? Why?
  • Write vividly : Include significant sensory information in the scene (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) to make readers feel they are there
  • Develop " Thick Descriptions "

Clifford Geertz describes thick descriptions as accounts that include not only facts but also commentary and interpretation . The goal is to vividly describe an action or scene, often through the use of metaphors, analogies, and other forms of interpretation that can emote strong feelings and images in your readers' minds.

"The flatness of the Delta made the shack, the quarters, and the railroad tracks nearby seem like some tabletop model train set. Like many Mississippi shacks, this one looked as if no one had lived there since the birth of the blues. Four sunflowers leaned alongside a sagging porch. When the front door creaked open, cockroaches bigger than pecans scurried for cover [...] walls wept with mildew."

—from Bruce Watson's Freedom Summer

Narrative Checklist

  • Does the story have a clear and unifying idea? If not, what could that idea be?
  • If the story doesn't include a thesis sentence, is the unifying idea of the story clear without it?
  • Is the story unified, with all the details contributing to the central idea?
  • Is the story arranged chronologically? If not, is the organization of ideas and events still effective and clear?
  • Do the transitions show the movement from idea to idea and scene to scene?
  • Are there enough details?
  • Is there dialogue at important moments?
  • Is there a climax to the story—moment at which the action is resolved or a key idea is revealed?

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