“Danse Macabre”: The Art of Musical Storytelling

Danse Macabre

Danse Macabre
Image courtesy of Flickr user Arallyn!

+ The following is a lesson excerpted from Soundfly’s free Themes and Variation Companion Course, which extrapolates “themes” covered in our biweekly podcast of the same name. Listen and subscribe to the podcast here.

By Mahea Lee

For the chilling Episode 6 of our podcast, Themes and Variation, co-host Mahea Lee (composer, pianist, educator) chose to profile a classical masterpiece that is equal parts creepy and beautiful: “Danse Macabre” by the composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Here are the CliffsNotes, listen below.

  • The Song: “Danse Macabre, op. 40”
  • Year of Release: 1874
  • Composer: Camille Saint-Saëns
  • Duration: ~7–9 minutes, depending on the performance
  • Basic Instrumentation: Violin, xylophone, orchestra
  • Worthy of Note: Saint-Saëns took inspiration for this piece (as well as one written in 1872 for voice and piano) from a poem by Henri Cazalis.

The Art of Musical Storytelling

On top of being an incredible composer, Saint-Saëns was a masterful storyteller, who expertly used his arranging skills to invigorate the audience’s imagination and bring ideas to life. Using orchestration in this way is an interesting thing, because it requires a thorough knowledge of the tools, techniques, and instruments at your disposal, as well as a deep understanding of your listeners and how they experience music.

There are many reasons we react to music the way we do. Some of those reasons are biological, while others may be social. We build various associations as a result of our interactions with various forms of media, culture, religion, and countless other influences. A song may conjure images in our minds because of the timbre of an instrument it uses, a rhythmic idea woven into its framework, or a melody that reminiscent of something we know from our pasts.

In “Danse Macabre,” Saint-Saëns tells a story so intricately, using the xylophone as a representation for skeleton bones, twelve plucked notes on a harp to symbolize the stroke of midnight, and the prevalence of that most taboo of intervals, the tritone. Of course, those are only three of a near-countless collection of image-inducing musical ideas in this piece alone.

There are so many composition and orchestration techniques that could be used to better tell a story through music. In fact, since a lot of this comes down to understanding how an audience might interpret something, there are countless ways for an orchestrator to paint a picture with notes. To articulate what we’re trying to say, we can use rhythm, melody, instrumentation, texture, and countless other musical elements.

While we can’t cover nearly as much as we’d like to here, we can look at some common ideas about a couple of instruments that have been around for a while and continue to be relevant today. (*And if you’d like to empower yourself with even more technical skills, join our Introduction to the Composer’s Craft and Orchestration for Strings courses.)

The Devil and the Violin

While it can be hard to trace the origin of the relationship between the devil and the violin, there does seem to be a general consensus around the notion that the great violinist Niccolò Paganini had something to do with the fact that the idea is still so popular today.

Paganini had a theatrical presence and played the violin with unprecedented virtuosity, leading some to believe he sold his soul to acquire his skill, while others were convinced he was the devil himself.

You can imagine what may have caused audiences to believe these things by listening to Paganini’s “24 Caprices for Solo Violin.” You can also hear more literal interpretations of the devil and the violin in works like Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat (The Solider’s Tale).”

Nature and Wind Instruments

It isn’t always easy to pinpoint exactly when or where an idea came to be, but it seems mankind has long believed in some sort of tie between wind instruments and nature. In Greek mythology, Pan (the God of Nature) often carries a wind instrument comprised of pipes, which we know today by the names “pan flute,” “syrinx,” or “pan pipes.”

Woodwinds tend to have a very expressive sound, due in part to the fact that they rely so heavily on breath. Often sweet, dreamy, and inviting, they’re a perfect fit for pieces like Claude Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun).”

Woodwinds are also featured heavily in Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” in which each character is represented by a specific instrument. Peter himself is played by the strings, the weapon-touting hunters by the timpani, and Peter’s grandfather by the bassoon. With the exception of the wolf itself (which is embodied by the French horn), the animals in the story are paired with woodwinds: bird and flute, duck and oboe, cat and clarinet.

So Much More to Consider

This lesson just barely scratched the surface of one of many musical elements that can be used to paint a picture or a tell a story. The truth is that if we wanted to cover everything related to this topic, we’d have to cover just about everything related to music in general.

Hopefully, the specific examples here will inspire you to think about the storytelling potential of every new musical concept, skill, and technique you encounter. Remember that if you’re ever in need of a burst of creative energy, go check out Soundfly’s suite of in-depth online music courses, where you’ll find inspiration, motivation, entertainment, and the tools you need to improve at whatever you set out to achieve!

Listening Activity

First, listen to a few songs from the playlist below, and pick one that speaks to you. If there’s another symphonic poem you’d like to use, that’s fine too. This is just a small collection to get things started.

Next, find at least three interesting writing or arranging choices in the piece that seem to evoke an image or idea that isn’t necessarily musical on its own — like the rooster crow or skeleton bones in “Danse Macabre.”

Finally, do a little research and see what you can learn about the song and composer, and whether any of those things further inform your understanding of the piece.

Writing Activity

For the writing challenge, start by picking a story to interpret through (non-lyrical) music. It can be a personal anecdote, a bedtime story from your childhood, or even something from current events. Just make sure you’re working with something that has a start, middle, and end, and ideally at least two characters.

Next, create a piece of music that takes inspiration from symphonic poems like “Danse Macabre,” though you’re welcome to write in whatever style best suits you. Your piece should be at least 16 measures or 60 seconds long, and can be created in a DAW or using traditional music notation.

If you’re not sure where to start, here are some things to consider:

  1. How do you want to portray each character in your story? Through melodic ideas? Using different instruments or combinations of instruments? Are there tempos, dynamics, rhythmic ideas, or techniques you might associate with any of your characters?
  2. What sort of emotions should a listener experience in reaction to different moments in the story? What musical devices can you use to depict those emotions? Are there certain chords or chord progressions that might fit nicely? Where do you want to create the most tension in the story’s arc?
  3. Do any significant numbers come to mind? There are so many ways to use numbers in music — through note repetition, melodic intervals, harmonic intervals, rhythmic phrasing, time signature, and on and on… Numbers aren’t a big part of every major story, but if you’re writing about the three bears or the seven dwarves, it’s something to consider.
  4. Does the story deal with opposing forces? In most stories, there’s a hero and a villain, or some other version of something good being at odds with something bad. If you’re able to identify this dynamic in your source material, think about how you might differentiate them. Would one be better served by a super active melody and the other by something sparse or stagnant? Would one lean toward forte and the other piano? If you’re taking a production-related approach to the activity, might you pan them differently?

We’d love to see what you came up with! Share your work with us in the #podcast channel of Slack if you’re a Soundfly subscriber, or email it to us at [email protected]. Good luck!

Meet the Panelist

Mahea Lee, mentor for Composer's Craft, Songwriting, and Orchestration

Mahea Lee is a composer, lyricist, pianist, and educator, who started studying music as a toddler and has continued ever since. A somewhat accidental generalist, Mahea has experience in a wide range of musical areas, but is particularly passionate about composition, music theory, and lyric writing. She received a degree in Contemporary Writing and Production from Berklee College of Music and currently holds the position of VP of Learning and Curriculum Development at Soundfly.

She enjoys sugar-free bubblegum, the sound of the ocean, and songs that force her to contemplate human nature and her own emotional instincts. Learn more about Mahea via her Flypaper column, Poorly-Guarded Secrets From the Soundfly Mentors’ Guide.

Revisit Episode 6 of our podcast, Themes and Variation, in its entirety right here, or click over to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or anywhere else you get your podcasts to subscribe.


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