Music Is Story

Updated: May 8



You’re in a dark room. There’s nothing to see, nothing to taste, feel, touch. You’re alone with your thoughts in a vast empty space. And then …


A single note.


Program music or programme music is a type of art musicthat attempts to musically render an extra-musical narrative.



Queen Elizabeth the First was a Protestant. Protestants were mighty suspicious of ornamentation of any sort, including music with too much flourish. They preferred a plain-spoken music, music that kept out of the way of God and allowed listeners to focus on prayer without the distraction of emotions.


They liked their churches that way too. No statues, no icons, no pictures. White walls and wooden benches. Music needed to fit in that spare environment.


Elizabeth though had a desire for more expression and flavor. She encouraged the arts, was open to romance and comedy. She was a keyboardist and liked to play baroque tunes with complex figures In the twisting and muddy lanes of London a new idea about music took hold, and in some ways, it was an attempt to circumvent the small tastes of Protestants.


The composer William Byrd grew up performing music in the cathedrals of England. But Byrd had difficulty fitting into the sparse eaves of the Anglican Church. At 19 years old he was fired from his job as church organist for playing a flamboyant style. Byrd relocated to London and secretly converted to Catholicism. The ornamentation of the Catholic Church, with tapestries and icons, suited his personality.


Sacred music was expected from composers of the day, but Byrd’s problem was how to write the music in his head without getting his head chopped off for heretical style.

His answer led the way forward for music to the film scores of today. Byrd began to write music accompanied by directions.

The Battle, which was apparently inspired by an unidentified skirmish in Elizabeth’s Irish wars, is a sequence of movements bearing titles such as “The marche to fight”, “The battells be joyned” and “The Galliarde for the victorie” Wikipedia

Byrd began to tell stories with his music.


As the different stylistic eras of music unfolded, the idea of music as story grew.

In the Baroque era, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons has poetic inscriptions in the score referring to each of the seasons, evoking spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was a musical narration of a hyperbolically emotional love story, the main subject being an actress with whom he was in love at the time. Franz Liszt did provide explicit programs for many of his piano pieces but he is also the inventor of the term symphonic poem. In 1874, Modest Mussorgsky composed for piano a series of pieces describing seeing a gallery of ten of his friend’s paintings and drawings in his Pictures at an Exhibition, later orchestrated by many composers including Maurice Ravel.

And so we arrive at the Battlefields of Winterfell.


Ramin Djawadi composed the music for the fantasy TV series Game of Thrones. In all, Djawadi composed 76 episodes for the series, including its persistent earworm of a title track. The score is a blend of orchestral colors, electronic sound design, synthesizers and choral. Thematic melodies repeat, but each episode is treated as a unique composition.


The Battle of Winterfell tells the story of darkness, anticipation, dread, the uncomfortable rhythms of percussions, the tense rising strings, the heroic themes on the battlements, the desperation as the Army of Dead overwhelmed the castle, resolving to a piano piece that takes us through a grim montage to the sudden unexpected climax.


It’s the last section, the Night King approaching his pyretic victory, that captures an emotional wave and tells a heart-wrenching story.


Listen: The Battle of Winterfell Music.

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