Michigan State University
Michigan State University
Literary Cognition Lab
Music and Narrative
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E.M Forster’s Howards End (1910)chronicles different characters’ responses to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a piece he called “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated...the ear of man.”  One character taps the beat; another holds the “full score open” before their face. The most interesting style of listening, however, is that of Helen, the heroine; she hears “heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood.”  This project draws on an archive of stories described by students who, like Helen, ‘heard’ narratives while listening to orchestral music. Just as Helen constructs a narrative bound to cultural ideas of Beethoven’s 5th, the students’ constructed narratives that constitute a crucial part of the musical texts they heard. This collection of texts deserves—and requires—humanistic interpretation in order to explore the narrative plays in meaning-making at the intersection of music and literature. Our collaborative project “The Stories We Tell About Music” thus brings together methods from musicology, narrative studies, film theory, and cultural studiesto ask: when—and why—do people “hear” stories at all while listening to music? What kinds of narratives do different pieces of music inspire; when and why do these imagined storylines align (or diverge) across listeners?  How can we use interpretive methods from literary theory and musicology to investigate this rich cultural archive to link musical elements with narrative structures, and do so in the most culturally sensitive, historically rich ways possible?  As our future archive includes cross-cultural narratives from rural China in Mandarin, including narrative responses to pieces of music from both American and Chinese listeners, we build on these previous queries to ask a final one: how do cultural differences influence our tendency to perceive stories in music, or challenge presumed commonalities in music-inspired narratives? This research will be relevant to a wide variety of scholars in the humanities, including music theorists, scholars of literature and narrative, specialists in film, experts in dance and opera, and scholars in performance studies.