View of Music as Narrative Technology

Music as Narrative Technology

By Viggo Krüger

Viggo Krüger

The things we call technologies are ways of building order into our world. (Carl Mitcham)

I would call this comportment toward technology which expresses "yes" and at the same time "no," by an old word, releasement toward things. (Martin Heidegger)


Some time ago I attended a workshop held by Carolyn Kenny at the Grieg Academy in the University of Bergen. Besides the value the workshop represented in terms of inspiration and motivation, it also got my thoughts going on my relationship to music. What especially lingered in my mind afterwards was Kenny’s advice to investigate one’s own relationship to music and the various relationships that develops from it as a form of organic and dynamic activity. As a new PhD-student at GAMUT, The Grieg Academy Music Therapy Research Centre, I thought that this was good advice and I was inspired to get involved in these kinds of reflections. Therefore in this essay I want to share some personal experiences of and reflections on music. My personal history of music is linked to the cultural history of blues and rock music. These are genres in which technological equipment is essential. In thinking about my relationships to music, I have realized that technology is more than instruments and amplifiers, however, and I have decided to link my reflections to some theory within the philosophy of technology. By doing this, I will try to expand my ways of thinking about music and hopefully grasp some new insights about a phenomenon to which I have dedicated my whole life.

Within music therapy theory the concept of technology is often viewed as something outside the realm of human beings, as physical objects. In an essay by Elaine Streeter about technology in music therapy, the concept is used in order to describe either material tools applied in research or as computer aids for music therapists in practice (Streeter, 2007). As I understand Streeter, the use of the word technology is applied solely to describe physical things or crafted machines. In this essay, such a view will be challenged by suggesting that technology is a form of human activity, linking material and social worlds. To find support for this way of thinking I will turn to cultural psychology. According to this perspective culture is both material and immaterial and there is an interaction between the two dimensions characterized by intimacy. The development of material resources goes so to speak hand in hand with the development of ideas and intelligible knowledge (Säljö, 2001). This view is somewhat similar to what Brynjulf Stige advocates in relation to the perspective of Community Music Therapy.

Music provides people with artefacts of various sorts, such as musical works (from songs to symphonies) and musical instruments, and this suggest that the relationships between artefacts and agents are of interest (Stige, 2003, p. 162).

For decades scholars from anthropology have been regarding technology as something more than objects or simply disconnected material culture. In 1975 Lechtman and Merill, in a text on northern hunting people, introduced the term "narrative technology":

An empowering system of knowledge gives life to northern hunting people, as it does to all culturally modern humans. Among northern hunters, narrative technology is a way of communicating and demonstrating knowledge. Knowledge explains their shamanic cosmologies and practices as well as the reciprocities they practice with one another and with the environment. Hunting technology, in order to be performed, must also be communicated between individuals and between generations. Storytelling (discourse and narrative) is the medium through which people communicate knowledge from one person to another and from generation to generation. Storytelling is probably the master trope of our species (Lechtman & Merill, 1975).

In an anthropological view, narrative technology is an empowering system of knowledge that can be utilized in order to make stories and to communicate these stories to others. The hunting people of northern Alaska as described above, uses their mundane techniques and spiritual cosmologies to demonstrate the practical use of tools, perform meaning and to communicate stories. The combination of these modalities is necessary to transfer important knowledge about how to stay alive and how to live properly.

In the following, I will try to explore how narrative technology as a way of communicating and demonstrating knowledge could be applied to an understanding of music and music therapy. I will do this by relating some personal experiences and some professional reflections.


Doing things the same way over and over, in exactly the same manner, really kills me. Repetitive action, like making dinner everyday, or driving my car to work is something that I don’t look forward to with much joy and happiness. To experience some kind of excitement or pleasure I feel a need to do things a little bit differently each time. My love for music is embedded in the possibility provided by music for doing things in a new way each time, either played or performed, individually or with others. A basic assumption in writing this essay is that music may give infinite possibilities of action as the world unfolds itself in an exotic manner. Using and experiencing music can thus result in the discovery new meanings and the making of lasting relationships. Through music, things can be experienced as both safe and new. These reflections, however, remind me of what happened just after I said goodbye to Carolyn Kenny in Bergen.

As I went out of the lecture room where Carolyn’s speech had been held, I ran into my old piano teacher from high school. This teacher, who now works at the Grieg Academy, is a very nice lady and she greeted me with a long and warm handshake. When I saw her, a different time was passing by. For a second, I didn’t recall her, but soon a conversation started between the two of us, and I started to remember. She was very glad to see me, but it was painful for me when she reminded me about the fact that I almost did not pass the piano exam during my last year at school (I was attending a music high school). She told me that just before the exam she was so frustrated that she almost gave up, but I had been given one more chance to learn a piece by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. She also told me that she had been a little bit irritated when she discovered that after months of no learning I managed to learn the piece during only three days, with the result of me just passing the exam.

I had forgotten about the incident, but I could literally feel some of the old frustrations I had with my piano playing during those years in my life. As of today, I don’t remember anything about the old classical pieces and I have never learned to play sheet music. As I reflected on the chat with my old teacher, one thing puzzled me. As a grown up, I really enjoy playing the piano. I have a beautiful Grotrian-Steinweg in my living room and I play as often as I can. I also have a former carreer as a professional musician. During that period, I often played keyboards and synthesizers in studio when we made our records. Despite the fact that I like playing the piano and keyboards that much, why did I nearly not pass my piano exam in those days? And why did I get this feeling of guilt, when I met my old piano teacher?

Maybe it was because I remembered that I did not care about playing the instrument the way she did, in the tradition after Edvard Grieg. I wanted to play music my way. At the time my piano teacher tried to teach me, music was too important for me to be wasting time rehearsing of old tunes in a dull living room. During the high school years I joined a band together with some of my peers. We were heading for world fame and released a record. Music represented a technology and an arena where we as teenagers could grow up, "fight" with the society, have great fun and learn important lessons. The band was a fellowship where song-writing, performance and recording were activities that gave high social status. When I played the piano at home, I used to make tunes and lyrics into songs. The songs were often presented to the other band members. I still remember one of the songs that I wrote on the piano while I should have been practicing Grieg. The song was called Brainstorm:

Sometimes my mind stirs up the weather in my soul
It feels like I’m going down again
Sometimes I lie on my bed
I’m floating weightless
I touch the ceiling with my right hand
I float with the undertow

During my high school years I really learned to enjoy and explore music. Music was a very serious business and it also offered the potential to attract female audiences. The band I participated in held several concerts and by the time we finished high school we received a record deal, with the result of four released records (also released in Japan) and a Norwegian Grammy. Through participation in the band I learned to play guitar, write songs, and to perform. It seems that these three "modalities" of action have become important for me and the way I view music. Today, as a grown up, a father, and a professional music therapist, music has not gotten less important, serious or joyful and I still explore the potential of these three dimensions of music; doing, telling and sharing.

Green Onions

The art and practice of storytelling has probably been around since the beginning of time, dating back to the earliest record of human existence (Rouse, 1978). In different therapies, storytelling also has a unique position and relevance (Wigren, 1994).

Storytelling and the communication of powerful meanings are traditional characteristics of music styles like blues, jazz, rock’n roll or pop (Frith, 1978). Unlike classical music, which often is characterized by the use of sheet music, the above mentioned styles offer a great deal of improvisation. Throughout generations, these musical styles have served musicians and songwriters as a means for oral and physical expression through the use of technologies and cultural practice.

Recently I listened to the famous blues guitarist, John Lee Hooker (JLH), while driving my car. I had just purchased a double CD at a gas station. It contained some of his lesser known tunes. On one of the songs, JLH sings about being very poor and having nothing to eat but green onions. The song suddenly became quite visual for me, as I could almost see and feel the taste of sour onions as I listened. The song got so lively for me that I started to picture a poor family from JLHs home town, sitting in their kitchen eating and crying as a result of the juices from the vegetable. This was a very strong moment for me, and I recall being struck by the genius of this work. In another song from the CD, JLH mourned about not having money for the rent. During this story, JLH explains how he looses everything, including his girlfriend and friends because he has to move out in the streets. The story is accompanied by his fantastic guitar playing, including blue notes and simple rhythm. As I listened to the music, I pictured the old guitar I have seen on the cover of the CD, a beautiful vintage guitar which probably is worth a fortune. I would really like to have one of those.

As I listened to the tunes, it became clear to me that I was not only listening to the music, but picturing an object and listening to a story as well. What became so powerful for me was how JLH managed to combine a relatively simple story with characteristic and great guitar playing on an old wooden instrument so that the performance became something greater than the story or the playing alone. As JHL played and sang his sad, but powerful old blues song, a feeling of being in the same room as JHL appeared to me. I think that my listening to JLH exemplifies of how music works as a unifier between several communication forms, in the case of JLH, doing an instrument, telling a story, and performing. As a music lover, musician, and music therapist, I very much acknowledge the heritage from the African American music that John Lee Hooker represents and I will always try to utilize techniques and knowledge from these styles in what I do, tell or share.

As with the example of JLH, making good lively stories is sometimes dependent on the use of objects, instruments or cultural artefacts. Individuals can make order in their life worlds by creating music, art, lyrics or performances by the use of tools. Through the use of these tools people conceive their actions into artefacts that have to do with the making of orderings. Without such orderings, the world would appear chaotic and fragmented. When I play my piano or guitar, I not only make sounds or rhythms, but try to construct constellations of meaning through the making of songs which can be socially performed. The way I use the piano as object can then be seen in relation to how things in the world help me constitute frameworks of experiences through action.

Music’s Multi-functionality

In my practical work as a music therapist I often experience how great the powers of music are. Presently, I work with children and adolescents in child welfare. Many of the people I try to help have experienced great losses and have various degrees of traumatic symptoms. Most of them are deprived from their families and have problems attending to school, work, and leisure activities. Throughout numerous meetings with these people I have experienced that music is an extremely powerful and important technology for the development of communicating skills and storytelling.

The many aspects of things, stories and performances of music are factors that I have to take into consideration in my practice and research. In my view, music is a multi-faceted activity and in the following, music will be described in the multi-functionality it offers. If one were to promote only one function of music, as in the case with me and my piano teacher, I think I would gather little progress with the children and adolescents I try to help.

1) Music offers activity through the use of things.

Through collaborative action the children and adolescents I work with use instruments in order to explore their functionality. Both improvisation and instruction is employed in order to find the proper use of things. The attention towards things gives potential for exploring the physical environment and to focusing on objects as a mean for activity. In beginning phases of therapy this could be important in order to gain trust and safety. Sometimes it is necessary to keep a secure distance through the use of things in order to make lasting relationships. In music there are many great artefacts to focus on. I mostly use band instruments and computer technology. These artefacts are mediating things which represent cultural and visual content.

2) Music offers activity through storytelling.

The use of things in music makes great departures for the narrative construction of meaning. I have often experienced that conversations have grown out of practical use of instruments. The potentials for developing conversations that include both talk about things (objects) and talk about more intimate matters, is present through the use of music activities. Telling about things is important to get to know other people and situations. Through telling, a person reflects on how she understands things from her point of view. Sometimes I bring my own instruments to a session. I have a Gibson Flying V and a Gibson J-30. These guitars both have an interesting "cultural history", and a personal story. As similar guitars have been used by guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Metallica, they give great potential for telling stories about the history of rock and as users we find ourselves in a cultural discourse, simply by applying them. The guitars also have a personal story about me and things that I have experienced and become departures for stories about my context and personal biography. Talking about things creates an introduction for sharing things.

3) Music offers activities that can be shared in numerous ways.

One example is through song-writing or attending concerts or performances. In my view, openness towards the multi-functionality of music is required in order to share things through creative work in music. In a music therapy session, if the adolescent picks up an instrument, she not only does she pick up an object. She also picks up potential for the development of new agency, stories performances, and social participation. When I am teaching an adolescent some guitar chords, I must also bear in mind the other functions of music in a perspective of narrative technology. To exemplify, I will describe an experience from my work.

Late Evenings, Good Feelings

During one music therapy session, I had a conversation with a girl who attends to the band workshops at the institution where I work. Over a longer period of time, she has engaged in playing the guitar and I have concentrated in instructing her in chords and techniques. She had always been very quiet during sessions and I have been cautious not to push conversations on her. We had both concentrated on using the instruments as tools for physical and musical skills. However, as I always try to make progress towards telling and sharing, my intention was to once ask her if she would like to make her own song. In the conversation that evolved between us, the girl expressed that she wanted to make her own song. As a result of this conversation we planned to make a song during the next lessons. I was a bit surprised about her decision, but I did not hesitate to follow her wishes. During the next few weeks we both engaged in finding chords and words that would fit together. As a result of this activity we made two lyrical verses based on a story of a trip the girl was to make to Denmark. The lyrics of the song were as follows:

Late evenings, good feelings
I’m going for a ride
Cold rain is pouring on me
I take a trip with my car

I see an old lady
On a ladies bike
She’s not going too fast
She’s not going too slow

We also made a melody containing three chords. In the end of the period I asked the girl if she liked the art of song-writing. The answer I got still puzzles me.

When we write songs together, I kind of learn several things at once. I learn chords, melody and even a new rhythm pattern for my guitar playing. It is nice to tell a story too. I like to do this better than just learning how to play the guitar (girl in a Children’s Welfare institution, attending music therapy and band workshops).

Reflecting back on this case, I think that sometimes it might be important to do more than one thing at the time. As I interpret the statement made by the girl, both doing, telling, and sharing things were for her great ways to learn music. The combination of these modalities of action may make a "higher order" of action.

Taking Things and Technology Seriously

In recent human science, some researchers have been taking things very seriously (Costall & Dreier, 2006). How people relate to objects goes beyond the standard views on meanings of things as located within the object or in the technical nature of technologies. The perspective taken here implies a view on the meaning of things as integrated in human activities over time, as mental representations, and as social conventions. Things are then not solely isolated objects, but ongoing practices in a dynamic flow of action that helps to make order in peoples’ lives. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it this way:

Men and women make order in themselves by first creating and then interacting with the material world. The nature of this transaction will determine to a great extent the kind of person that emerges. Thus the things that surround us are inseparable from what we are. The material objects we use are not just tools we can pick up and discard at our convenience; they constitute the framework of experience that gives order to our otherwise shapeless selves (Csikszentmihalyi, 1981, p.189).

When humans use things they develop technologies. Things and technologies do not stand in the way for humans, but expand the possibilities for exploring new horizons of meanings. Writing about things and technologies then, does not necessarily give a dehumanized perspective on people, but might reveal a broader understanding of the existence of human beings. Technologies are therefore viewed as social strategies or procedures for handling objects. Through the handling of the objects, people make them into cultural technologies which have cultural affordances (Jensen de Lopez in Costall & Dreier, 2006). Cultural affordances would then be functions by an object that are produced through human activity in situated contexts.

The given function of an object cannot be accounted for as an inherent property of that artefact, but rather as mediating, cultural-historically constructed meanings (Jensen de Lopez in Costall & Dreier, 2006, p. 89).

My claim is that too often we take for granted the relationships that we make to the world we live in. The routine of everyday life gives content to the same stories without questioning the why’s and how’s. As I see it, music offers the potential for asking questions and to making new action. Music is a great way to combine elements of practical use and storytelling. If we take music seriously, we can start an open ended journey into the unknown where untold truths can be found and told. Maintaining an attitude of openness to music, in combination with a reflective stance, offers possibilities for exploring different uses of things and the potential to create new meanings. Music then becomes the vehicle for revealing new truths and to making new orderings of the world we live in. The combination of making new truths and orderings can be utilized to help people achieve better life situations, make well-informed stories, and make good music.

In a phenomenological philosophy of technology, the revealing of possible truths trough the use of objects is subject to discussion. One of the profound philosophers in this regard is Martin Heidegger. Heidegger emphazises the possibility that technologies can reveal new truths for human beings. If new horizons of truth can be revealed for humans, then they must have an openness towards things. In "The Question Concerning Technology" Heidegger discusses technology as a double-edged sword, capable of dominating and confusing human beings or of revealing forces for an opening towards things. According to Heidegger there are two ways of questioning technology. The first is to regard technology as a means to an end and the second has to do with technology as a human activity (Heidegger, 1977). Technology then, is not an entity or a product of manufacturing, but exists as an ongoing practice linking people to their material worlds. As Heidegger puts it:

What has the essence of technology to do with revealing? The answer: everything (Heidegger, 1977).

It is the capability to use technology but not letting it dominate that fascinates me as a musician and a music therapist. If technology is being done in a repetitive manner, it could very easily become dull and even dangerous (according to Heidegger). New ways of using technology may result in new orderings of things and to the development of new stories. New technologies provide possibilities for making new stories through construction of new language.

Music could be understood as such a culturally afforded technology, not unlike how De Nora describes music as a technology of the self and a device for social orderings (DeNora, 2000). When people use music they either do, tell or share things by giving culturally defined functions and strategies to material things. By doing, telling and sharing music, people then construct new meaning which can expand and reveal their life worlds. Music would then be what connects people with things and helps people to see the proper use of things as well as giving them possibilities for sharing social meanings through narrative technology.

Music as a form of narrative technology embodies an infinite number of secrets which can be disclosed through an attitude of openness and readiness towards things. Through improvisation, playing, singing, song-writing and performing, music could be understood as the making of orderings which might real new possibilities about the world we live in. To take part in music activities, either alone or in fellowship with others, is to start a journey which might lead to open ended practices, linking people and things, in a world of things. In such a view, music is a technology characterized by a flow of activities where material and semiotic dimensions of reality are interwoven.


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