How To Tell a Story with Sound

The below article includes a musical break down of my song “Wrath”, click below on your preferred method to listen;
Apple Music


Keep Them Coming Back For More

So like most people, I am addicted to consuming stories. Whether it’s from binge watching a season of The Punisher on Netflix, or listening to The Dark Side of the Moon from beginning to end, there’s seemingly something addictive on a chemical level in these stories that keeps us coming back.

So I’ve tried incorporating stories into my own music, not only because it’s my favourite medium of art, but also most of my creations are instrumentals (generally by choice), and instrumentals definitely need to tell a story to stay interesting. They need elements of rising and falling, climax and resolution, just like a book.

  • Who are the main characters? (Which instruments have what role?)
  • How do these characters interact with each other, and how do they change after different interactions? (Chord progression, melody, rhythm)
  • What is the story? (Using key/tempo, minor/major, instrument choice to create a feeling)

So let’s see how I incorporate all of these elements when composing a song, using “Wrath” as an example (ironically one of my few non-instrumentals);

Wrath Ableton Project


    1. Beginning – Song introduction, and verse with female vocals. The ambience of the rain sets up the atmosphere (similar to an establishing shot), and then continues throughout the entire song, colouring every frequency it touches like a filter on Instagram. Then the 2 main layers enter (saxophone and vocals), with the flowing ethereal voice’s hand being held by the constant bass and percussion, as it brings the listener to the middle section, having hopefully set up the relevant emotions intended.
    2. Middle – After the first verse ends and the vocals subside, the saxophone comes back in, as do other layers one by one to gradually build up the emotion and crescendo. This phase has the most layers in, every frequency fighting for space and attention but each getting their turn to shine. From the synth bells moving up and down a minor scale, to the FX tail of the original vocals looping to signal the final phase, this is the time to be the most repetitive and intense.
    3. End – As the drums end and the synth bell changes it’s pattern we enter the final phase, switching the chord progression and bringing in several more complex sounds, utilising arpeggios and many more subtle layers (such as the female vocal hit to emphasise the snare rolls). We use this section to resolve conflicts, and show change (old instruments playing new melodies, bass line calming down, sweeping filters etc).  Yet with all the automation and complexity, the song ends just as it began (bringing everything full circle and tying it up with a bow).

Sound Selection

In most of the music we listen to, our attention is focused on the lyrics of a singer/rapper (well these days it’s more so the “catchiness” of the vocals and how they sound instead of the lyrical content/complexity/creativity that once was required). So what do we do when we don’t have that key element? Ensure that each sound we find has a purpose, and that together they can interact in such a way to keep us invested and on our toes.

Native Instruments Massive

Ultimately it’s down to personal taste and preference when it comes to instrumentation and sounds. I personally tend to start off with a preset (generally using Massive by Native Instruments) and then keep tweaking as I go along, as well as heavily processing the sounds with all sorts of effects (reverb, delay, bit crushing, phasing and flanging to name a few) to keep things spacey and ethereal. Whatever your process for creating and selecting sounds though, ensure they compliment each other, both in frequency and style.

The Role of Melody

Melody is always extremely important, as it’s one of the 3 pillars upon which music is built (the other two being Rhythm and Harmony). However in a story telling context, it’s importance is increased as it’s the bedrock that allows you to first catch a listeners attention, and then keep it. Sequencing notes in a specific order can create a tune that stays in peoples brains, or shifts the emotions they’re feeling from happy to sad. Below is a great video from WIRED that explains it better than I can;

Even if you’re not a classically trained musician, these concepts can still be utilised (and should be I think) to ensure the song sounds as good as it possibly can, so keep this in mind as you build the track to it’s climax. I believe that creating the perfect melody is a life long search that changes as you discover new tricks, styles and sounds, so try to get comfortable going out of the box and experimenting with ideas for this.

Songs to Listen To

So these are all just rough elements that I’ve outlined to try and give a bit more understanding into how and why I create my music, and hopefully there will be a bit of inspiration for any of you who create music too, the same way I’m inspired by songs like these;

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