The Hero’s Journey in Music: An Introduction


Today, we’re starting a new series of articles with a bit more of a biographical and cultural approach. In this series, “The Hero’s Journey in Music”, we’ll take a look at Joseph Campbell’s work on comparative mythology, and see how it applies to the lives and art of some of the biggest names in music.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, I want to take this as an opportunity to fully explain The Hero’s Journey. If you’ve already read Joseph Campbell, or heard one of Dan Harmon’s rants on his story circle, you can go ahead and skip this one.

For those of you curious adventurers still interested, let’s start by breaking down The Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey, Simplified

While it by no means encompasses all stories, The Hero’s Journey is the most widely recognizable and universal of story structures. Dan Harmon’s story circle simplifies Campbell’s more thorough explanation into eight digestible steps. We’ll be using this as our main tool throughout the series, as it suits our needs perfectly.

  1. Hero in a Zone of Comfort – This is the beginning of every story, during which, the Hero (protagonist) is introduced. (In “Star Wars”, we first meet Luke Skywalker as a moisture farmer, and see who he is before his journey)
  2.  But they Want Something– Every story is driven by the protagonist’s desires. This is the point when that desire becomes clear. (Luke wants to get off his planet and become a pilot)
  3. So they Enter an Unfamiliar Situation – After receiving a call to action, the Hero embarks on a quest to achieve their desire. (Luke Skywalker leaves Tatooine with Obi-Wan, and for the first time, enters a new world with new rules)
  4. Adapt to it – Also called the “Road of Trials” by Campbell. This stage consists of learning the rules of the new world, and gaining relevant skills. (Luke shoots down TIE fighters, enters the Death Star, and reacts to the forces around him)
  5. Get What They Wanted – Also called the “Meeting with the Goddess”. Here, the Hero achieves their original desire, and often learns something about themselves in the process. (Luke rescues Princess Leia, and learns that he has more empathy than Han, who wants to leave her behind. Luke wanted adventure and everything that comes with it, and he gets that in the Death Star)
  6. Pay a Heavy Price – This is the cost of the Hero getting what they want. (Vader kills Obi-Wan. Luke realizes the full weight of the stakes. This is a crucial, transformative moment)
  7. Return to a Familiar Situation – Here, the Hero gets a chance to walk away, and return to a normal life again. (Luke boards the Falcon again, then sees Han leave the Rebel base with the reward money. He can make the same choice, but has decided to fight for something larger than himself)
  8. Having Changed – This is where the Hero bestows the boon of knowledge/skill upon society. This is what makes him/her a Hero. (Luke blows up the Death Star, and destroys the threat to the Rebellion. Then he is rewarded for his deeds by society)

Where Music Fits In

If you didn’t already know, The Hero’s Journey is a metaphor for the cycles of growth and change we all go through. If you’re living with your parents, you’re in a comfortable situation(1), so you may want to move out(2), which will put you in an unfamiliar situation(3), and so on.

Successful musicians are heroes in their own way. Their songs and albums are boons of value to us all. We listen to our favorite bands and artists, and form deep connections with the emotional core of their music. In many cases, we see artists as role models and inspirational figures.

I have a deep love of narrative. Like many out there, I grew up reading Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and never stopped. I’m always looking for new ways to apply narrative structure, and music seems like a natural avenue to pursue.

Final Thoughts

What artists have made the biggest impact on the cultural, social, and political landscapes of our time? Does their music reflect The Hero’s Journey in any discernible way? Can we learn more by examining their lives? These are some of the questions I seek to answer throughout this series.

If you found any of this interesting or helpful, please let me know in the comments section. Additionally, if you noticed something I missed, don’t hesitate to provide feedback. And finally, if an artist or band sprung to your mind while reading, feel free to share.

Next time, we’ll pick an artist, and see how their life and music hold up to The Hero’s Journey.


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