“Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.” — Roger C. Schank, cognitive scientist

I’ve never had much interest in taking an architectural or sculptural approach to music. There are composers who can think spatially about their music, but for me time (music’s medium) and space (the medium of the visual arts) are not equivalent.

Far closer to the way I experience music is the way I experience narrative: events build one on another, leading us from the surface into the depths of an imagined world.

Many composers shudder at the idea of telling stories with music. Certainly, Mickey-Mousing – creating a story by mimicking real sounds with an orchestra – can get tiresome very quickly. But there are many other ways in which stories can be told.

We have to begin by distinguishing between two often-confused terms: story and plot. There is overlap, but they are not synonymous. Plot-driven stories can be very effective, although they don’t tend to be my cup of tea. Hollywood blockbusters are often plot-driven: characters are stock heroes and villains whose thoughts and actions are dictated by the necessities of conflict, climax and resolution.

Again, these stories can be very effective in a visceral way, but they don’t usually leave me with much to savor.

Character-driven stories offer a nice contrast. Individuals are introduced, each with a recognizable personality – not as types, but as fully realized, living beings. These characters interact and develop, and the story evolves from their interaction.

What happens is less important than who happens.

I find this a very effective analogy to the way I experience music. Ideas are introduced, hopefully vivid ideas that seem somehow true yet fresh to my ears. They interact with one another, and I am drawn ever deeper into their world.

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