2013-12-25

Character Development

1.
Imagine you had never seen or read any version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol ever before. Imagine further that, rather than starting at the beginning, you started at the arrival of the first spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Past. You started there, and continued all the way to the end. Under those circumstances, the plot of the story would be perfectly obvious. The story's major conflicts would be thoroughly straightforward. The moral of the story would resonate perfectly well with you. Everything would be just fine.

Considering all of that, what purpose is served by the first part of the story? Why must we invest so much time and effort into gaining exposure to all the cantankerous things Ebenezer Scrooge does and says? What is the purpose of learning about Tiny Tim early on in the story, or learning about Scrooge's workaholic nature? Why should we even care about Jacob Marley's visit?

Good writers understand the importance of character development. It's not necessary to tell a story with rich and well-developed characters, but the better we understand the people within the story, the more meaningful their actions become. Anyone who goes through the experience of viewing reruns from their life and previews about the future will learn a few lessons about generosity, but the real genius of A Christmas Carol is not that anyone learns to be a good person, but that a particularly evil man learns to be good. It means all the more that a hopeless case found redemption than it does that some guy learned to appreciate the world around him. We can tell the story from A Christmas Carol without any scene that occurs prior to the visit of the first ghost, but the story just won't be as good.

2.
Now, if someone were to ask me what A Christmas Carol is about, I might tell them something like this:
A Christmas Story tells the story of a rich miser who, over the course of a single night, receives a visit from three ghosts. The first helps the miser re-live his past mistakes; the second shows the miser the important things that are going on around him in the present-day; the third shows the miser his fate, should he continue to live his life as he has thus far. As a result, the miser is moved to change his ways, just in time for Christmas Day, and sets out to live a happier, more generous life.
Notice that my plot synopsis just justice to the story while simultaneously omitting all references to Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim, and the many other characters who serve to make the story the classic that it is.

Suppose we were having a conversation, and you told me that you hated how people wear those stupid Santa hats during Christmastime, and my response was, "What are you, buried with a stake of holly through your heart and boiled in your own pudding?"

Obviously, I'm making a reference to a classic Scrooge quote. To those of us familiar with the story, we instantly understand the message I'm conveying to you. I am, in effect, implying the entire book to you through that one sentence. We have a chuckle, and we move on, but I haven't said anything about the plot of the story, nor have I made any reference to any of the characters or particular events in the story.

With one well-placed citation, I'm making a statement that spans hundreds of pages of English literature.

3.
Music theory works the same way as the two episodes I've described.

On the one hand, we can consider music theory as a sort of character development. You don't need any understanding of music theory in order to write a song, or appreciate something on the radio. You can pleasantly bob your head along with whatever you hear. You don't need an academic understanding of music theory for any of that, of course not.

But without that additional character development, without the added frame of reference with which to supplement your listening experience, you won't really be able to appreciate what you hear on the same level. Just as we need to understand that Ebenezer Scrooge is a wicked man in order to fully appreciate his reform over the course of the visits from the three Christmas spirits, so, too do we need to understand something of music theory in order to enjoy the depth of expression available to us when we hear music.

And, on the other hand, we can think of music theory as a stand-out quote from a great novel. Jazz musicians do this all the time when they quote melodies from famous songs while soloing in a second song altogether. But it need not be that obvious, either. I can evoke certain moods just by changing the way I phrase a melody. Just by moving one note, I can make a melody go from sounding "normal" to sounding "exotic." In doing so, I convey to you a whole series of musical ideas, often with only a few notes.

Conclusion
Some people do not fully appreciate the fact that knowing some music theory enhances the listening experience. It's not about what's "smart" or "good," it's about conveying ideas on multiple levels, adding character development of sorts, and making references to tertiary ideas.