A Storyteller’s Guide to Musical Expression

There’s an art to telling a good story. Famous yarn-spinners like Mark Twain or the legendary Scheherazade knew how to captivate their audiences. It didn’t seem to matter what the story was about or how far fetched the premise was.The storyteller’s art is less about the material than it is about the delivery.

Children know this instinctively. I can recall countless sleepover parties where we girls would scare - and giggle - ourselves to sleep telling ghost stories. As soon as the lights were out, one of us would find a flashlight, hold it under her chin to make her look ghost-like, and the stories would start. Even if the stories were completely nonsensical, they were still fun.

Of course the dark and the flashlight were requisite elements. A ghost story needs the right atmosphere.You can’t tell a good ghost story with the lights on, and a narrator with that up-from-the-grave look is essential. 

Every piece of music has a story to tell. It may not be revealed in the title: “Gavotte” doesn’t immediately suggest a page-turning narrative. Whether the title hints at the composer’s intention or not, it is up to the performer to create the story, to engage the listener in it and to lead them through the tale to the ending.

This is the essence of music and musical expression. Expression isn’t merely playing dynamics and phrasing; it is creating a compelling musical story through a combination of dynamics, phrasing and more. While musical expression can be involved and complex, fundamentally it’s not much different from telling a spine-chilling ghost story. In fact, the same five keys to telling a story well apply to playing a piece of music expressively.


One of the first musical decisions a performer should make about a particular piece is the mood or atmosphere he wants to create. Even when the composer has provided a title that suggests a mood - “Contemplation” or “Gypsy Dance” perhaps - the performer is always called on to add their personal flair. A gypsy dance could be frenzied or sultry; a contemplative piece could be calmly reflective or melancholy. 


A skilled narrator controls the pacing of the story, the overall flow from beginning to end. Musically, this isn’t only about tempo; it also involves the relationship between the sections of the piece. A performer reveals the  logical development of the piece with its ups and downs, increasing and relaxing musical tension.


Every good story has several characters, and a skilled storyteller gives them different voices. Changes in tone of voice, speech patterns and articulation help a listener distinguish the different speakers in a dialogue. In music, dynamics, tone color, phrasing and articulation can all help to convey the “story” of the piece.


The scariest ghost stories have that element of truth, the idea that this might actually have happened to the narrator. This plants that speck of doubt in the listener that adds to the thrill.  

Musical “truth” lies in what the composer has written on the page. The only way a composer can convey her sense of the piece to a performer is through notations on the page. The performer is responsible for preserving that truth in whatever interpretation she chooses to give the piece. The composer’s notations must be the starting point for a performer’s expressive choices. That alignment between composition and performance produces an interpretation that has musical integrity.


The best storytellers bring you into their stories. They are fully engaged in it, and their commitment to the story engages you too. When you play music, it is your emotional immersion in the music that pulls a listener in, that engages them in the musical tale you are creating. This is truly the easy part; when you are enjoying playing your music, the audience will enjoy it too.


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