A Story Without Words – Why Music Matters in Storytelling

As school draws near and our leisurely time closes, we uncomfortably await what inevitably lies in front of us. Duty, friendship, commitment, and challenge. In this perilous time, yours truly will still be providing a shimmer of light. Two blogs will form a hold on September’s dawn, brought to you in a gold wrapping of a computer notification.

Joking aside, I hope the above reminder was tainted in a more jovial heart than what you may be feelings right now. It is true (for me at least) that school begins once again next week, so I have returned to bring a topic that speaks dearly to everyone: music. Not just music (such a topic is too broad to even have an entry point), but its application and importance in storytelling. While I cannot cover every example (and what I cover will inevitably speak to myself more-so), I encourage you to look at your favourite stories and look to what role music plays in them.

Before delving too far into this immense rabbit-hole (of four coverings), we will start off very simply with an example from the gargantuan collection of Walt Disney: Mulan. To take a quick snippet of the animated feature, I present you with the song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” (written by composer Matthew Wilder). Even if you have no interest in the film or haven’t seen it for a very long time, the song should give you a general idea of the film’s plot to this point.

As a musical, songs are not supposed to delight themselves in a plethora of subtly that only relies on you to feel. Rather, this song directly fuses and correlates plot, character development, relationships, setting, and impending conflict into a catchy three minutes of melodic narration (or rather, singing). In a musical, songs represent major plot points that can be enjoyed and made memorable to a wide audience. Here, Fa Mulan’s development as a character is tied to the world around her. As per the usual hero’s journey, the uplifting tone of the song is proportional to her struggles in becoming a soldier. She may lack the skills to do so at this point, but her wants and drive to become something more are nicely showcased by the movie.

To move on, I would like to add that music appeals to a much deeper level in storytelling. Mulan’s showcasing is a clear and concise example of how musicals are rather smart in pulling their plots together, yet at the same time, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Music tells its own story perfectly in ways that not even words can describe, and encapsulate emotions that only enhance the experience of a film, television show, or video game.

I am unsure if presenting this piece brings back buried and repressed memories of a time where this franchise took a sink, but forget them as you listen to this amazing piece (Anakin’s Theme from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, written by composer John Williams). In my humble opinion, Episode I’s score is brilliant and displays the potential for a film that could have been infinitely better. I would even dare to say that I can see brilliance overshadowed by fatal faults and errors that Episode II and III lack, yet this is another discussion for another time.

Anakin’s Theme is a piece that plays in scenes where the character of the same namesake appears (obviously), and at its surface, it seems to only describe the tragic nature of his freedom: he will most likely never see his mother again. However, this piece is beautiful in its clear-yet-subtle foreshadowing that Anakin is an innocent, happy and naive child, only to become a being of terrible power that has stricken fear and death into an oppressed galaxy. This is why this track is so immensely tragic, as every beam of light casts a shadow only as large as the figure. The undertone of the Imperial March is also very clever in showing the ramifications that even the film acknowledges about bringing an unknown child that will balance the forces of good and evil, yet sometimes believing with enough heart will do.

This overall foreshadowing is more related to this piece in question then to the actual plot of the film, which moves back to the key point of music in storytelling. We aren’t beaten over the head that Anakin will become evil, yet as a prequel, we know it is bound to happen. What this theme does is makes us feel invested in the part as well, and tells the clear story of innocence tainted and transformed into something monstrous.

Without context, can music still be an effect tool, however? The answer?


To take another moment before we delve into the wonder-full score of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (written by Jeremy Soul), I would like to acknowledge a fair point. The score of a video game is meant to enhance the overall immersion that you are a part of a world, as well as have a lasting appeal due to the repetition of pieces that will loop and appear many times throughout a game. On the other hand, music in a film is meant to overlay and delve deeper into a linear story, setting tone and atmosphere that can make or break it.

Speaking of atmosphere, this track here (Far Horizons) sets it stone right off with its name. Horizons may be in relation to distance, or loneliness. It may also refer to a serene, yet uncertain landscape that lies beyond. Most importantly, in the horizon, the day’s end may lie. All of these are mixed together in the entirety of Skyrim’s score, yet as a video game, these relate to player experiences rather than to a character or plot point. The music here acts as a guide to something that may completely lack a plot but enriches your story. Perhaps the wilderness and the tundra of Skyrim have opened a vista to your eyes, or you are gazing into the final seconds of sunlight as the night overtakes the sky. Here, I cannot say if this piece tells a cohesive tale, but it does take its hand in shaping one (to say for a final time).

For our final example, I will share a scene rather than a piece.

From Halo 4, this scene plays towards the end of the title’s campaign (in a mission aptly named Composer). Despite the fact that the emotion of the scene may not come through without playing the rest of the game (or delving into the fiction of the franchise as a whole), what did you notice about the second part of this scene?

The lack of any music playing whatsoever is what makes the emotion of this scene stick out so much. While an ominous or saddened tone could have been present throughout it, the developer had instead opted for silence. While I have insinuated that music makes its own story, the absence of music showcases pivotal moments where the characters and atmosphere take their own stage, and sticks out to a greater degree.

In hindsight, music is music. We listen to it, like it, and become addicted to pressing the replay button until we move on. In reality, music is a barrage of emotions that are expressed to such a complicated level that only our own minds are capable of parrying it. As I stated towards the blog’s beginning, I encourage you to analyse the score of a movie (or not) that you love, and to see how it correlates with its story and characters. I apologize for not going as in-depth for some of these as I should have, yet emotions are something that you must determine yourself and take what you get. I hope you enjoyed my return to analysis, and as always, I look forward to seeing you guys next time!


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