Week 2 (Feb 1): Narrative

This week, you’ll read about the most prominent theory of narrative in the field of music theory and analyze a piece with narrative theory.

Narrative theory

Introduction video: Frye’s narrative archetypes

Watch my instructional video on the basics of narrative theory for music, based on .

Note: This video uses interactive technology. The picture-in-picture can be swapped or even viewed side-by-side. The video also uses a menu so you can quickly navigate to certain portions of the video. For more explanation, see this video from Kaltura.

download narrative slidesdownload narrative video captions/transcript

Optional: Complete the Concept Check quiz on Blackboard to see if you are understanding these concepts.

Reading: Klein on postmodern narratives

Read , which explicitly focuses on applying narrative theory to a broad range of repertoire.  Here is a playlist of the mentioned musical examples:

Due Thursday: Response

In #reading-responses on Slack, post a message with some type of response about the readings/videos. You might ask clarifying questions, summarize an important bit of it, or just relate to it in some way. You can also respond to someone else’s message (start a thread). 

More on reading responses
A response essay is your personal take on the readings, and thus you shouldn’t be trying to write the “right answer,” but rather your opinion and reaction to what you’ve read. Remember that these are graded pass/fail, so anything you write is valuable in that sense. Feel free to use I/me pronouns and to freely express yourself (while remaining professional) and your opinion of the reading.

Here is an optional prompt for your essay: Give an example from your personal background where you used the idea of a musical story to help guide your performance (or, for educators, your instruction  for a performance) or composition. What did this story add to the piece?

Feel free to write your response on another idea, if you wish.

Due Sunday: Analysis assignment

You will analyze Chopin’s prelude in C minor from the Op. 28 preludes. This Chopin prelude is short and in a simple texture, yet full of narrative implications.


1. listening

Listen to recordings of the prelude several times while following along with the score, to get the music in your ears. This is a very short piece, so it will not take long.

Here are two recordings:

2. Identifying motives
Chopin motives a and b
has analyzed this piece as being based on two overlapping motives, which are both found in the melody of measure 1: motive a, a neighbor-note figure in quarter notes, and motive b, a stepwise descending figure with the dotted rhythm. This is shown in the picture on the right.

Go through the rest of the prelude and identify the fragments that can be based on motive or motive b, making note of how they are transformed as the piece goes along.

3. analysis

Now, try to create a narrative through the relationship between motives and as they develop through the piece. You can think of a and almost as two characters in a story.

Here is a starting point for you: in measure 1, think of these two characters (the motives) as being in cooperation with one another. The motives overlap nicely, and together they outline the tonic C minor triad. This gives a definite sense of gloom and lamentation.

For your analysis, write a short essay (500 words max!) that answers the following questions:

  • Which motive represents order, and which represents transgression?
  • Which side of this battle (between transgression/order) do you, as the listener, sympathize with?
  • Who succeeds in the battle between order/transgression, and who seems to be winning in various points of the piece?
  • Considering the above questions, which narrative archetype does this piece represent: romance, tragedy, comedy, or irony?

In addition to tracing the motives, here are other elements that you may consider in any narrative analysis (this also comes from Almén):

  • Spatial and temporal aspects of the piece. For example: registral shifts or gaps, changes in a prevailing or normative key or rhythm, etc.
  • Any change or development in a musical parameter. For exmample: the sense of increasing momentum associated with accelerando passages.
  • Any programmatic associations linked with themes, motives, textures, or with the work as a whole.
  • Expressive markings as coloration of other meaningful events. For example: when extra emphasis is implied by a crescendo or marcato marking.
  • The use of text, descriptive titles, or supplemental explanatory material, when appropriate.


  • You will be assessed on the following concepts:
    • Good identification of motives throughout the entire piece
    • Proper application of order/transgression concepts
    • Good support for narrative archetype
  • You will be given detailed feedback through the rubric. Click “View rubric” in the gradebook to access this.
  • Assignments are always graded pass/fail, with a threshold of 70% to pass.


  • Submit only your short essay. There is no need to submit a separate score, but make sure it’s clear what aspects of the score you are referring to by using measure numbers, pitch names, etc.
  • Submit your assignment on Blackboard.
  • Upload your assignment as a .pdf attachment. Please do not use other file types.


If articles are not available online, you should be able to find them in the Readings folder.

Almén, Byron. 2003. “Narrative Archetypes: A Critique, Theory, and Method of Narrative Analysis.” Journal of Music Theory 47 (1): 1–39.
Klein, Michael L. 2012. “Musical Story.” In Music and Narrative since 1900, edited by Michael L. Klein and Nicholas Reyland, 3–25. Musical Meaning and Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.