How Led Zeppelin + Franz Schubert = Writing

Can you use the music of Led Zeppelin or Franz Schubert as models for writing? Of course you can!

So I argued this past Saturday in a talk about structuring long nonfiction pieces at ScienceWriters 2011, the meeting of the National Association of Science Writers, held this year in Flagstaff. I hope to post a web version of the talk soon, with my main points and the musical excerpts I used. But for now, as I try to finish a rather complicated, long, and overdue nonfiction piece, I’ll pass on a bit of Chris Palmer’s nice write-up of the session at the NASW site:

Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” greeted receptive attendees of David Dobbs’ Saturday afternoon workshop “Going Long: How to Structure the Longform Narrative – with Help From Music, Theater, and Film.” Dobbs played portions of the track, an example of the rock pioneers’ exploration of song structure, to kick off a fascinating talk and discussion about the use of form and structure in longform narrative stories.

David Dobbs

David Dobbs

In his opening remarks, Dobbs explained that longform stories cannot be written merely as scaled-up versions of short or mid-length stories. They require a different structure to keep the reader engaged.

“Music, theatre and film offer analogous models of thinking about how to move stories along, how to structure them, how to transition from one part of the story to another,” said Dobbs.

Dobbs also played portions of pieces by Mendelssohn and Schubert in discussing the inspiration he draws from “sonata form, “ a musical structure dating back to the mid 18th century. Paralleling the progression of a feature narrative, sonata form has three main sections. Themes are introduced in the “exposition,“ elaborated and contrasted in the “development,“ and revisited in the “recapitulation“ in a way that changes how we think about the initial part of the song, giving it a deeper meaning.

Within the simple three-part structure of sonata form, there can be complex substructures. “There’s a macro structure where a piece is cut into a few big chunks which are broken into other structures that may replicate the bigger structure or may not,” said Dobbs, making an analogy between longform narrative structure and the structure of fractals.

Do read Palmer’s whole post, “Exploring longform narrative structure,” at the NASW site.

Two of the several compositions I drew on and talked about:

Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. This wonderful piece has too many musical ideas to fit in the simplest A-B-A pop-song structure, so Zep uses a roughly A-B-A-B-C structure (and goes up to 11!). As usual with Zep, drummer John Bonham (the real center of this band), drives the change. Just as a writer can signal a new section by altering voice, tone, narrative distance, or sentence rhythm, Bonham creates this song’s first significant section break with an essentially impossible rhythmic shift at about 2:14. You can’t feel it coming, and you can’t really figure out how it happened once it’s done, but afterwards, the song’s different, and while they have the same tempo, he’s moved to a different backbeat. (He later returns to the original backbeat.) After about 1000 listens, I’m still trying to figure out what he does here (I need to just count beats and measure someday); but I believe he and the rest of the band actually a 4/4 measure in half and start a new 4/4 measure (and major section of the piece) right after the 2d beat in an existing measure. (No big deal for what is likely the only band to ever record a pop song in 15/16 meter. In that one he turns what should be the 4th beat of every fourth 4/4 measure into the first beat of a new measure. Seamless — but it’s what drives the song.)

And the first movement of Schubert’s Rosamunde quartet, played by the incomparable Guarneri Quartet. The structure roughly matches that of my NY Times Magazine feature “A Depression Switch?” More on this exquisite piece when I write up the talk.