So The Story Goes

Gabriel Rothman
Jul 13, 2017 · 4 min read

Music, like all art forms, is a mode of communication. When a musician creates a piece of music, they are forming a declaration about themselves that is reflective of their life and experiences. When they share that work with the world, they are seeking to create connections around shared experiences. When listeners go searching for music, they too are seeking these sorts of connections.

This communication goes far beyond a simple statement or thesis. There is a story wrapped into every artistic piece, and like a novel, every musical story has a linear trajectory: an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. A good story is rich, descriptive, and evocative, and a good piece of music shares these same characteristics. Consumers value a compelling story, and by expanding on music’s storytelling capabilities, we can create deeper connections among musicians and listeners, and increase the value of music at large.

The story of each musical piece is complex and multilayered. At the surface, there is the overt narrative, communicated through the music itself. This includes instrumentation, lyrics, and overall style. Moving deeper, there are both conscious and subconscious components that add to a work’s story. Consciously, musicians make explicit decisions about which sounds to use (and not use) to convey their intended message. They bring producers, sound engineers, and collaborators into the studio to provide expertise, and explore other artists and genres to expand their musical palate. Subconsciously, musicians are influenced every day by current events, culture, and their own personal life experiences. All of these factors, both conscious and subconscious, have an important role in defining the larger story of a musical work.

We used the song ‘Reckoner’ by Radiohead as a case study for a multilayered story. We used the virtual reality engine called Unity to represent the song as a cube that explodes into shards. The user can then explore the story through these shards, seeking out whatever information they find most compelling.

As interesting as these layers of information are, they are under-appreciated and underutilized in today’s market. We spoke with music listeners in Boston, MA, and repeatedly heard that they do not put music at the forefront. Almost all opted to play music in the background to set a mood rather than immerse themselves in its story. This sort of approach glosses over the complexity that we explored, and hardly does justice to the intent of the art. Artists spend months choosing instruments, writing lyrics, and crafting textures, and listeners may not even connect with this first level of storytelling when they play a song while they read a book, or work out at a gym.

However, we also repeatedly heard from listeners that they valued the emotional response that music can evoke, and there is an opportunity to expand on this and draw richer emotional connections between artist and artist, artist and listener, and listener and listener. Everyone in the music ecosystem stands to gain if the focus shifts to music’s core, to communication and connection.

To Feel Connection

When listeners seek out new music in today’s marketplace, they typically navigate a web of genres. Works are grouped together not by experiences that fueled their creation, nor by their intended message, but only by how they sound. What if you could explore music using emotional data? What if a rap song could connect with a rock song, and a country song, and a classical piece, all through the similarity in each artist’s life experience? Or by cultural influences that touched these different artists in different ways? If music is all about creating connections through shared experience, then it inherently follows that listeners should be able to explore music by seeking out these connections. Rather than use individual songs or artists as entrypoints, we can use existing connections to immediately create new connections.

We used the song ‘Same Drugs’ by Chance The Rapper as a case study to visualize the potential for connectivity around a song’s story. We pulled data from interviews, articles, and social media to draw connections between artists, locations, emotions, and cultures. The song’s story is represented in a force-directed graph (from the d3 library in JavaScript). Each node represents an influence, and influences with more connections carry more weight, shaping the overall image.

This visualization is just the first step in creating a world where music is organized by emotion and artistic influence. Imagine this song’s graph connected with Chance The Rapper’s entire catalogue, and every one of his collaborator’s catalogues, and so on and so forth. It would be a mess! But that’s exactly the point; the world of music is not a series of boxes labeled ‘rock’ or ‘rap’, it’s an intertwined story that is ever-changing and ever-growing. It’s a world built on connections, not individuals, and we envision a world where both listeners and artists can build their stories together through emotional and creative connections.

The Open Music Initiative

Berklee’s Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship co-founded the Open Music Initiative to promote open source standards and innovation for music, and to assure compensation for all music creators, performers and rights holders. We share our stories here.

Gabriel Rothman

Written by

Reports from a Techie Generalist / Musician

The Open Music Initiative

Berklee’s Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship co-founded the Open Music Initiative to promote open source standards and innovation for music, and to assure compensation for all music creators, performers and rights holders. We share our stories here.