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  • The Common Basis of Narrative and MusicSomatic, Social, and Affective Foundations
  • Richard Walsh (bio)

It always struck me as a rather counterintuitive development that narratology should have been taken up by music scholars to the extent that it was from the mid-1980s onward.1 Yes, there are hybrid forms in which narrative is involved (opera, program music, ballet, folk ballad, etc.), but while there may be some value in examining such forms from a narratological perspective, even here the narrative dimension seems inessential; it is not intrinsic to the musical qualities of the work. How could it be? Stories are representational, necessarily—no narration without representation—whereas music, fundamentally, is not. The encounter between music and narratology seemed to be a clear case of the overgeneralization of the concept of narrative. So I found myself largely in sympathy with the reaction against narrative analysis in musicological circles, which manifested itself in a series of articles, [End Page 49] by several scholars, pointing out that the concepts of narrative theory were in several respects redundant or inadequate for the purposes of musicology.2 To the extent that a consensus view emerged out of this interdisciplinary encounter, it appeared to be that narratology could not deliver on the promise it had briefly held for some scholars as the theoretical foundation of a new, reinvigorated musicology. Rather, its proper and somewhat chastened status was that of a conceptual apparatus largely developed in the adjacent world of literary study and, by virtue of that proximity, able to cast an interesting sidelight on aspects of musicology, but necessarily inadequate for the task of describing music’s distinctively musical features.3

Yet on reflection I think there must be more than this to the relation between music and narrative. It may be true that listeners who project a story onto music, even in the absence of accompanying paratextual cues, do so without warrant from the music itself; but that does not mean that they do it quite arbitrarily and without cause. By the same token the narratological interests of music scholars are, at the very least, symptomatic of something. The qualities of narrative and music may be divergent in many important respects—irreducibly so—but they do seem to share a common core that is both cognitively fundamental and primitive. This essay briefly reviews the current state of narrative research in musicology in order to establish a basis for exploring the common features of music and narrative. It does so by appealing to perspectives from human evolution and infant development and draws upon current interdisciplinary discussion of the origins of music, and its relation to language, in order to advance the view that music has an even closer relation to narrative than to language. My analysis focuses upon rhythm and addresses in turn the somatic, social, and affective foundations shared by narrative and music, and their importance within the context of prelinguistic communicative behavior. It then considers arguments about the emergence of language from protocommunicative behavior of this kind; these arguments throw light on the development of narrative intelligence and on the divergence of narrative and music—at the level both of individual cognition and of sociocultural pattern making. In this way I aim to outline a perspective on narrative cognition, stories, and storytelling that can help clarify some key assumptions of contemporary narrative scholarship. [End Page 50]

Narrative in Musicology

The case in favor of a principled narrative approach to music now seems to rest upon two key strategies.4 One strategy is to reject the normative status of literary narrative, and with it much of the narratological terminology that is, if not exclusively relevant for, certainly native to literary narrative study. The other strategy is to emphasize a hermeneutic model of musicology—in other words, one in which the contexts and processes of interpretation are considered an intrinsic part of the object of study. Both strategies shift the focus of attention away from a reductive narrative model of musical discourse in itself, but in opposite directions: the first makes the narrative connection at a lower, more abstract structural level; the second locates it at a higher contextual level that incorporates both musical...


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pp. 49-71
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