What makes a good story?
A good story isn’t just a beginning, middle, and end. A good story makes you feel something, relate with the narrator, or leaves you wanting to know more. What’s interesting about songwriting is that the authors can make you feel so much without having to use words. By using music and lyrics, you can take a step into the mind of your character and feel what they feel at the same time it’s being told. Below are four examples of what I think are great songs that also tell amazing stories.
1) I Will Follow You Into the Dark – Death Cab for Cutie
The Love Story
Love of mine
Someday you will die
But I’ll be close behind
I’ll follow you into the dark
Good story telling often involves a connection between two people. The classic love story is both important and iconic. You know you have a good story if you find yourself hearing a song and getting consumed by “all the feels.” In this story we hear singer songwriter of the band Death Cab For Cutie, Benjamin Gibbard, sharing with us his love note to an unknown recipient. The simple instrumentation of just voice and acoustic guitar conveys the love that makes the listener imagine a happy ending for the couple.
2) The Rake’s Song – The Decembrists
Emotion and Anger
Charlotte, I buried after feeding her foxglove
Dawn was easy, she was drowned in the bath
Eziah fought but was easily bested
Burned his body for incurring my wrath
Alright, alright, alright
This song is as dark as it is disturbing. However, for this song, the words and music don’t seem to go along. It has an almost marching-type rhythm with a sense of victory, yet tells a story about loosing one’s wife and going insane. We are hearing the confession of our narrator who murdered his children after his wife dies during labor. The angst-filled lyrics bring the emotion of the song to the forefront. Although disturbing in this, emotion is a quality all good storytelling must have.
3) Waitress – Hop Along
Realized I knew you from His photo when you walked
Into the restaurant
And my heart just sunk
Your friend looked over from the bar
She must’ve known, who I was The worst possible version of what I’d done
As, seating couples
I tried to listen
A good story has something that characters can overcome. In this song by Philadelphia band Hop Along, we hear a story of a waitress who is uncomfortable with her current patrons. As with many other good stories, this is a situation in which the main character has a problem they must face. The music throughout the song gives the sense of anxiety when you’re in an uncomfortable situation, or conflict. A conflict typically leaves room for a resolution. But what’s interesting about this particular story is that by the end of the song, the patrons don’t leave. Sometimes, the best stories don’t have happy endings.
4) Ocean – John Butler
Setting and Suspense
When thinking about this fully instrumental piece by Australian guitarist John Butler the most important aspect of storytelling comes to mind: rising and falling action. Ocean is a perfect example of a song that can tell a story without the use of words. Although open to interpretation, the swell of Celtic phrases drives the story forward. What is the story? The story can be what you want. For me, I hear the ocean. I hear the tide going in and out and the waves crashing on rocks. Not only is it setting the scene, but the story is deeper than that. It’s about the rising and falling action of life. The best part about this story is that Butler improvises most of the parts for each performance of the piece, keeping the suspense ever present.