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Music and Storytelling: Climate Change through a Cello

Cello closeup

While listening to the incredible soundtrack of Cloud Atlas during my writing session, I thought back to a post I read a few months ago about the power of music in storytelling. In it, the author shares his firsthand experience with something most of us know to be true, that music can play a crucial role in enhancing narrative:

“Emotions become clearer, drama becomes more intense, and action becomes more exciting. The whole story is augmented and pushed to a new level that the visuals alone can’t accomplish.”

But can sounds by themselves, without words, become primary vehicles for storytelling? Connecting this thought back to an environmental theme, I came across this fascinating video by University of Minnesota undergrad Daniel Crawford in which he converts global temperature records in a piece he plays on his cello. Have a listen:

 Some questions to ponder:

  • Is there a story contained within the song?
  • How do you feel listening to the piece?
  • Does the music convey something the visuals don’t?
  • Which is more powerful: The music, the graph, or Crawford’s words?

Related Ekostories

Featured image from wikimedia commons.

21 Comments

  1. I’m a visual person who loves music and who sings all the time. I’m multitasking from work right now and will listen to this on the weekend.

  2. I find the music brings the past and future into the present with some sound emotion and was a great background while the mind churned the visuals.
    Thinking about the music now reminds me of the earth’s respiration under stress.

    • Yes, I get a clear sense of time with the music: past, present and future.

      What a intriguing insight, with the breath of the earth quickening. Wow, did not get it before, now it’s almost inescapable and very powerful.

      Thanks for giving me a lot to think about!

      • I agree – even the universe has a musical sound that is quantifiable and finite, but remains within the infinite.

        “To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.” Aaron Copland

  3. Great topic! This particular song I found rather amelodic. It sounded like data points set to music. A story is more than just individual words or notes. It also needs an emotional transcendence that pulls everything together, which I feel was missing here. (Interesting concept, though.)

    I do agree that music can enhance a story, can “make the emotions clearer” as you quoted above. Although, sometimes I think this comes at a cost of being allowed to sit with our more muddy feelings, different feelings, or a lack of feeling at all. I’m thinking of movie scores and soundtracks in this regard. This music often serves as a cue – an emotional push-button to tell the viewer “You should be feeling X emotion at this point”. There are numerous conventions used in music to extract specific emotions; sometimes it can be a little limiting.

    That said, I do enjoy movie scores – quite a bit, actually – although in isolation from the movies that gave rise to them. I like to listen and create my own story around the music, both when writing or just daydreaming to pass the time, and often attribute different emotions to songs than what the composer sought.

    • As always, I appreciate your insightful comments! You bring up a ton of very interesting points.

      Your first comment of the piece being amelodic is very interesting, because that was something I was thinking about when I noted that the piece was really more sound than music. For me, there is a definitely build towards a climax, but I tend to agree with you that it is probably not enough to make it a story, as properly defined.

      As for the comment about music enhancing narrative, I totally agree it’s a double-edged sword. You trade subtlety and vagueness for and resonance intensity, but maybe the process is a hit or miss one when you make something certain.

      That being said, I enjoy moments where the soundtrack not only enhances experiences, but subverts expectations. Going back to the example of Avatar which inspired this post, there’s a critically acclaimed scene in its finale where the music transforms what is normally a very intense heart-pounding duel into a sober tragedy in which sibling fights sibling. The score made it a completely different scene and made it really hit home for many.

      I think your comments also touch on the pros and cons of storytelling in different mediums. I think to the example of Cloud Atlas the novel versus Cloud Atlas the film. Due to certain inherent limitations of the film, the directors chose to make its themes more explicit (and thus more messagey) than the novel. Does it make it a worse story? I don’t think so, just different.

      Soundtracks are my favourite. I think you and I differ in what we get out of them. For me, they are inextricably linked to the creator’s original vision. I can’t ever get away from that. Perhaps that speaks to my lack of imagination and creativity haha.

      • I doubt it speaks to a lack of creativity in you. There are numerous tools from which writers can draw inspiration, and ever writer is different. 🙂 I like it when a soundtrack subverts expectations too.

  4. Although I definitely thought the musical piece communicated tension and a sense of building up…I thought the entire video clip with commentary from the musician along with the visuals told the story. Very intriguing idea though. I remember as a child loving Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” because individual instruments became the characters that carried the story forward.

  5. Shows a continuum of change. Seeing the musician who has to concentrate on every year, note to make it right..

    • Once again, the linear temporal component seems to be quite important. And yes, the musician literally gives voice (along with it, heft and significance) to each year.

      Thanks Jean.

  6. Wow. I think the music conveys an urgency that the graph alone can’t convey. Music touches our emotions in a way that pictures alone can’t do. I thought of the piece as a cry of pain or stress. A “do something and do something now!”

    • Appreciate your response, Linda. Stress and urgency are things that I sense as well. Not pain, perhaps the piece is a little too short for me to get too attached to it. I wonder what the piece would sound like with a more finely resolved set of data points. Would more notes still convey the emotions we feel? Hmm…

      • Interesting question. I’m amazed at the power of music to convey emotion and spark an emotion within us. It’s almost like we’re the instrument and the music plays us.

        • It’s very reciprocal, isn’t it? I wonder how much of what we feel is due to the music (the vehicle) and how much of it comes from the musician (the conveyor).

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