The Chain: Looking at Music and Story Structure

I’m no musician, but I love music. In fact, I probably spend a good five hours a day in the company of music. But music is also a great starting point for thinking about structure that goes beyond chronology and adopts pacing, sentence length and voice to propel the narrative forward.

Science writer David Dobbs once spoke about music informing narrative structure. While I can’t find the exact presentation, there are a few resources floating around the internet which you can find here, here and a closer look on Dobbs’ story structure here. Dobbs emphasises the point that structure can be used as an expressive force — as it is in music — by using Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir and Schubert’s Rosamunde quartet as examples. I decided to focus on my own personal favourites.

The Chain

Fleetwood Mac’s the Chain, is not only representative of the band’s tumultuous romances and arguments but, is also a good example of how music structure can inform story structure.

What I love so much about this song is the way it continues to build upon itself. First, it’s just the bass drum. Add a guitar. Add a bass guitar. Then add a chorus of voices. Once all the elements are combined however, the song is then stripped back again and suggests that something different is coming. An incredible bass solo (around 3:03 mins) paves the way for the crescendo and introduces a complexity of voices and sounds before ending. There is no gentle fade out here — it’s a big bang and then it’s over.

Personally, this song shows how individual elements can be introduced into a story before being pared back down again into quieter moments. This kind of structural quality could be achieved by introducing characters gradually to build a scene before stripping back the narrative to focus on a small moment before building it to something greater again. For example, Gene Weingarten’s

For example, Gene Weingarten’s the Peekaboo Paradox (one I’ve mentioned before), begins as a profile of a popular clown in Washington D.C. — which alone, could be a great story. But there’s a change in the piece that makes it so much more than that — it becomes a portrait of childhood, adulthood and morality and how — in our own way — we are all still playing peekaboo with our fears and traumas. Much like that consistent bass line, this doesn’t happen suddenly but is built upon and alluded to with lines such as, “we are rolling bones.”

If you listen closely to the Chain, even during the pared back moments, so much is being said. Similarly, a lot of emotion or reporting can be expressed through the quiet, silences of narrative. Yet, overwriting is often an easy trap. When I overwrite, those moments of silence, stillness or the unsaid, are removed and everything becomes noisy, all the time. But, if you can have a quiet moment — a bass solo, if you will — then what comes next, will be greater than what preceded it.