Musical Structure as Narrative in Rock

John Fernando Encarnacao


In an attempt to take a fresh look at the analysis of form in rock music, this paper uses Susan McClary’s (2000) idea of ‘quest narrative’ in Western art music as a starting point. While much pop and rock adheres to the basic structure of the establishment of a home territory, episodes or adventures away, and then a return, my study suggests three categories of rock music form that provide alternatives to common combinations of verses, choruses and bridges through which the quest narrative is delivered. Labyrinth forms present more than the usual number of sections to confound our sense of ‘home’, and consequently of ‘quest’. Single-cell forms use repetition to suggest either a kind of stasis or to disrupt our expectations of beginning, middle and end. Immersive forms blur sectional divisions and invite more sensual and participatory responses to the recorded text. With regard to all of these alternative approaches to structure, Judy Lochhead’s (1992) concept of ‘forming’ is called upon to underline rock music forms that unfold as process, rather than map received formal constructs.

Central to the argument are a couple of crucial definitions. Following Theodore Gracyk (1996), it is not songs, as such, but particular recordings that constitute rock music texts. Additionally, narrative is understood not in (direct) relation to the lyrics of a song, nor in terms of artists’ biographies or the trajectories of musical styles, but considered in terms of musical structure. It is hoped that this outline of non-narrative musical structures in rock may have applications not only to other types of music, but to other time-based art forms.

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