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Storytelling in music: hitting the right notes
Communications – PR, Social Media, Content Politics, NGOs & Culture 22 November 2022

Storytelling in music: hitting the right notes

Even if tastes are known to differ – music is the language that everyone understands. And it seems like this has always been the case. The discovery of a Neanderthal flute made from cave bear bones gives an idea of how far back the history of music really goes. Said flute was discovered in Slovenia and is said to be at least 50,000 years old. It turns out that humans have been looking for ways to express themselves in ways other than the use of their vocal cords since prehistoric times. Which is why, in my blog post, I explore the question: Which songs, albums and soundtracks are particularly interesting in terms of storytelling? From rock to rap to pop to classical music, I’ve searched all genres and even ran into an old acquaintance whose work happens to be the foundation of our daily work at Mashup Communications.

Storytelling in der Musik

Off on a (musical) adventure: Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey as a song

The interaction of sounds and lyrics makes it possible to present emotions in a unique way. Led Zeppelin prove this with one of their greatest hits, “Stairway to Heaven” – a classic in music history. This is where Joseph Campbell comes in, whose hero’s journey principle served as a model for lyrics and music:

The first step of the protagonist’s journey, the ordinary world, is introduced through a harmonious, plucked guitar playing in medieval style, which evokes olde England before the inner eye of the listener. Abstract song lyrics reflect the call of adventure:

There’s a feeling I get

When I look to the west

And my spirit is crying for leaving

The rhythmic guitar signals the heroine’s departure into the unknown. When crossing the first threshold, the drums kick in. Here, enemies, allies and trials await, which must be overcome. In the lyrics of “Stairway to Heaven”, for example, these appear in the shape of a mystical flute player:

Your head is humming and it won’t go

In case you don’t know

The piper’s calling you to join him

The guitar solo, played by Jimmy Page, is the climax of the almost eight-minute long hymn and can be interpreted as the crisis of the hero’s journey. Once the heroine has survived this fundamental test, she returns to the ordinary world, accompanied by guitar and flute, sounding already familiar to us:

And as we wind on down the road

Our shadows taller than our soul

There walks a lady we all know

Who shines white light and wants to show

How everything still turns to gold

Storytelling in der Musik mit Led Zeppelin, Green Day, Kendrick Lamar, Whitney Houston, Wagner und Konzerthaus Berlin

Punk on Broadway: how Green Day won over the mainstream with a Rock Opera

35 years and several rock band generations later, Green Day released the record “American Idiot”. Songs like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” or “Wake Me Up When September Ends” were an integral part of every radio program back in the day. But only few people know that the album released at that time follows a narrative concept – it is a punk rock opera with a coherent story from the first to the last song.

In this opera, the teenage anti-hero named Jesus of Suburbia, unsure of his emotions, is torn between anger and love. Anger is expressed in his alternative personality St. Jimmy, love in his relationship with his significant other Whatsername. The album reflects the disillusionment of a generation coming of age during various crises, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the war in Iraq. The record became a huge success, winning a Grammy Award and was later even adapted as a musical for Broadway.

Telling your own story: storytelling rap gives a voice to the less privileged

In no other genre of music is storytelling so prevalent as in rap – so much so that there is even a sub-genre of the same name: storytelling rap. The performers want to encourage their listeners to make their dreams come true and provide insight into the realities of life of those who don’t have a voice in social discourse – just like rap artist Kendrick Lamar.

In the two-part, half-autobiographical track “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” Kendrick recounts his upbringing in Compton, which was marked by gang violence. However, through a spiritual rebirth he decided to leave those precarious circumstances behind and escape his supposed fate of ending up as a criminal.

What are we doin’? Who are we foolin’?

Hell is hot, fire is proven

To burn for eternity, return of the student

That never learned how to live righteous but how to shoot it

Tired of runnin’, choirs is hummin’

From Whitney Houston to Wagner: music that has shaped the cinematic landscape

When we recall our favorite movie scene, it is usually accompanied by emotional sounds that make us howl, laugh or gasp. Unsurprising, as music can enhance an already impressive performance by an actor or actress. This is what happened, for example, in the thriller-romance “Bodyguard” from the 1990s with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. Wether you like to admit it or not, “I Will Always Love You” still belongs on every heartbreak playlist.

In addition to pop, classical music can also give depth to epic film moments and elevate storytelling to the next level. In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 anti-war film “Apocalypse Now,” viewers are presented with numerous combat helicopters as they target a Vietnamese village and reduce it to rubble. The terrifying images are accompanied by Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, which increases the threatening atmosphere immeasurably – although almost not a single word is spoken during the scene.

Commercial without words: How the Konzerthaus Berlin puts the capital to music

Commercials that convey entire stories purely through sounds can also be found in advertising. One example comes from Konzerthaus Berlin, which pays tribute to the capital in a series of short videos. The orchestra use their instruments to imitate the most unique sounds and noises that every Berliner knows from everyday life. Among the imitated sounds are the beep when the S-Bahn doors close, the sizzle of a curry sausage and the stomping of elephants at Berlin Zoo. The unusual campaign won several awards, giving Berlin its very own soundtrack.

Because storytelling conveys emotions just like music, it is not only found in song lyrics nowadays, it is also an essential part of any marketing strategy. Using the example of a backpack, consultant Mona explains in her blog post how storytelling in e-commerce can also succeed.

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