A Theory of Musical Narrative

A Theory of Musical Narrative

A Theory of Musical Narrative

A Theory of Musical Narrative


Byron Almen proposes an original synthesis of approaches to musical narrative from literary criticism, semiotics, historiography, musicology, and music theory, resulting in a significant critical reorientation of the field. This volume includes an extensive survey of traditional approaches to musical narrative illustrated by a wide variety of musical examples that highlight the range and applicability of the theoretical apparatus. Almen provides a careful delineation of the essential elements and preconditions of musical narrative organization, an eclectic analytical model applicable to a wide range of musical styles and repertoires, a classification scheme of narrative types and subtypes reflecting conceptually distinct narrative strategies, a wide array of interpretive categories, and a sensitivity to the dependence of narrative interpretation on the cultural milieu of the work, its various audiences, and the analyst. A Theory of Musical Narrative provides both an excellent introduction to an increasingly important conceptual domain and a complex reassessment of its possibilities and characteristics.


The inspiration for this project dates back to 1992, to the preliminary research period of my dissertation “Narrative Archetypes in Music: a Semiotic Approach” (1996), and to my near-simultaneous discovery of three books from disparate fields: Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Eero Tarasti’s A Theory of Musical Semiotics (1994), and James Jakób Liszka’s The Semiotic of Myth (1989).

Frye’s book, an acknowledged masterpiece, is a remarkable taxonomic rewriting of the principles of literary criticism; its most influential constituent essay, “Archetypal Criticism,” introduces his four mythoi—romance, tragedy, irony, and comedy—that represent fundamental, pregeneric patterns of narrative motion. This formulation has influenced countless scholars in many fields, most notably Hayden White, who has observed (1973) the tendency of historians to consciously and unconsciously emplot historical events according to temporal narrative schema. I had been acquainted with these mythoi since high school, but my first reading of the essay in 1992 convinced me that they are eminently applicable to music.

Tarasti’s book was very nearly my first introduction to the semiotic discipline. Although I was not then familiar with Charles S. Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure, or Algirdas Julien Greimas, several aspects of Tarasti’s writing immediately appealed to me. First, it is systematic and thorough (although his writing style is quite expansive), but these qualities never unseat his sensitive musical insight. Second, his application of the notion of “modality” to music to account for the encoding of human values into musical discourse seemed to offer a way out of the arbitrary assignment of expressive characteristics to music. Third, his willingness to tackle a large conceptual terrain and a broad representation of musical literature was refreshingly ambitious and welcome. With respect to my own development, Tarasti was an important model for bringing togetherl intuition, and an eclectic breadth of interests. My choice of title for this book thus represents an acknowledgment of the debt I owe to his example.

Frye’s deductive taxonomic system and Tarasti’s inductive analytical methodology embody balancing impulses that might work effectively together. the means to achieve this balance in the current volume is accomplished by The Semiotic of Myth. It does for the field of mythology what I am attempting to do for music: locate an analytically rigorous approach to narrative within a socially and psychologically methodological frame—and it specifically invokes Frye’s mythoi as its upper-level taxonomic principle.

Music, like mythology, is a temporal phenomenon, and both are amenable to narrative organization. Liszka’s concept of narrative as transvaluation—the change in markedness and rank within a cultural hierarchy over time—is crucial . . .

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