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Emil Ernström

Musi 246 / Thst 236

Music as Narrative in West Side Story

West Side Story has been thoroughly praised for its treatment of dance, theater, and music

in service of its dramatic narrative. To this end, Bernstein’s musical score functions not only as

energetic, show-stopping music, but more importantly, aids the narrative in revealing insights

into the conflict, story, and characters of the musical. In the first three songs of the show,

Bernstein brings these narrative elements into the music: Prologue establishes the overarching

conflict between the Jets and the Sharks, Jet Song characterizes the Jets gang, while Something’s

Coming introduces Tony, the protagonist of the story. These scenes work as a ‘narrative

telescope’; gradually coming into focus on Tony only after describing the society of gang

violence that surrounds him. Through sophisticated use of recurring musical motives, rhythmic

hemiolas, and orchestration, Bernstein’s music supports the narrative’s telescopic structure,

ultimately portraying Tony as an outsider to the world of violence and delinquency that

surrounds him.

In the Prologue, Bernstein uses three musical motives to portray the discord and conflict

between the Jets and the Sharks. Rather than opening the show with bombast in classic

Broadway style, Bernstein constructs the Prologue meticulously, mirroring the rising tension in

the choreography on stage. The piece begins with a presentation of the first motive (example 1),

a series of triads with major and minor thirds played in a swing-feel. The chords reinforces a jazz

idiom, since the major and minor thirds, suggest a dominant seven sharp nine chord (with a

missing minor seventh), which is very common in Blues and other jazz styles. The jazz idiom is

further suggested by the orchestration, as the opening chord is played not only by strings but also
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straight-muted trumpets and electric guitar. This combination of instrumentation and dissonance

lends the opening a brash tone, and the rhythm suggests a slow walk, as if the Jets are strutting

around their territory.

Example 1 – Bernstein, “Prologue,” mm. 1–4

Only a few measures later, Bernstein introduces the second motive of the Prologue

(Example 2). Played by the alto saxophone and vibraphone, the sound and swung rhythm once

again contributes to the jazz sound Bernstein is creating. Of interest is how the phrase begins on

an E but ends on a D#, suggesting the same dissonance that was used in the opening chord of the

Example 2 – Bernstein, “Prologue,” mm. 12–13

Prologue. Furthermore, the interval between the A and D# is a tritone, an interval that appears

repeatedly in Bernstein’s score. Overall, the tone of the second motive is similar to the first with

its sense of swagger and confidence. Bernstein transitions into a melody based on the first motive

played by the violins and woodwinds (mm. 22), when it is suddenly interrupted by the third


The third motive (Example 3) coincides with Bernardo’s entrance, and encapsulates the

sudden tension between the two gangs. Played by the trombone, the motive consists of a leap of
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a fourth, and a leap of another tritone. The pianissimo volume and long sustain of the F

contributes to this sudden sense of tension, and as the motive ends, there is an immediate

response of the first motive (mm. 43), this time on pitched drums, as the Jets taunt Bernardo.

Example 3 – Bernstein, “Prologue,” mm. 41–43

Having introduced the three motives, Bernstein uses the rest of the Prologue to pit the

motives against each other as the two gangs fight on stage. The melodies made up motives one

and two continues to dominate, but the third interjects itself into the music, interrupting the other

motives. Example 4 shows one of many such instances, where the bass line of the first motive

becomes the beginning of the third. Finally in measure 140, the third motive takes over, first

Example 4 – Bernstein, “Prologue,” mm. 77–82

played in unison by the flute, electric guitar, and cello, before being passed around the orchestra

over a percussive groove. The music grows to a climax as the gangs break out into a brawl,

finally concluding with the first motive that opened the Prologue.
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In the narrative structure of the musical, the Prologue scene is meant to give the audience

an understanding of the underlying conflict between the Jets and the Sharks. Bernstein supports

this objective through his use of opposing musical motives that mirrors the action on stage. The

first and second motives represent the Jets, who strut around their territory. When Bernardo

arrives, the third motive is played at pianissimo, but gradually increases in strength as more

Sharks arrive to fight. These musical representations are not reserved to the Prologue, as

Bernstein continues to use these associations as the show progresses.

Jet Song uses many of the musical motives Bernstein employed in the Prologue,

strengthening the musical associations between the first and second motive and the Jets. After an

introduction composed purely of the first and second motive from the Prologue, Riff begins to

sing. While the melody is new material, the accompaniment resembles the first motive.

Example 5 – Bernstein and Sondheim, “Jet Song,” mm. 28–31

Another prominent feature of this example is the rhythmic hemiola: While the accompaniment is

playing very clearly in two, Riff’s melody is in three. The dissonance of the harmony provided

by motive accompaniment and the hemiola both contribute to a feeling that something is ‘off’ in

the music. While the melody seems to follow a standard blues pattern, the continuously dissonant

notes in the clarinets and violins tells the listener to distrust Riff’s claims. Bernstein continues to
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use dissonance to connote insincerity as the song progresses. In the next part of the song, Riff

imitates the second motive from the Prologue, accompanied by dissonant clusters in the electric

guitar, clarinets, and trumpets. Despite singing that as Jet “you’re never alone, you’re never

disconnected” (mm. 43-47), Bernstein’s music makes Sondheim’s lyrics mean the opposite of

Example 6 – Bernstein and Sondheim, “Jet Song,” mm. 44–47

what they say, suggesting how the gang is disconnected from society, too obsessed with their

territory and turf wars to be concerned with anything else. This idea of being an outsider in

society is also invoked in the rhythmic hemiola, where Riff cannot match his singing with the

rhythm of the orchestra.

Jet Song uses the brass regularly, whether in the dissonant clusters in Example 6, or in the

forte climaxes in the middle and end of the song. The brass and dissonances creates an overall

sound that borders on strident, which is exactly what Bernstein intended. The clumsy

dissonances and raucous orchestration portray the Jets as inexperienced kids who are unaware of

the dangerous choices their making. Their youthful energy and destructive power manifests in

the music, lending the song a sense of exhilaration and dread. By reusing motives from the

Prologue, Bernstein is able deepen our associations between the musical material and the Jets, as

he develops and orchestrates the material differently. In addition, the reuse of these themes
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supports the ‘narrative telescope’. Having heard the ‘Jet’ motives interact against the ‘Shark’

motive in the Prologue, in Jet Song Bernstein focuses the composition more closely on the ‘Jet’

motives, as the scene shifts from one depicting the Jets fighting the Sharks to one of the Jets

planning their next attack.

In the last song of the opening, Tony is finally introduced. Given the motives already

introduced in the previous numbers, Bernstein could have easily used this material for

Something’s Coming. However, to characterize Tony differently than the Jets, Bernstein uses a

combination of new and familiar elements in the song. The song begins in three-four time, with

Example 7 – Bernstein and Sondheim, “Something’s Coming,” mm. 11–15

the bass clarinet, cello, and bass playing an ostinato of descending fourths while the

accompaniment in the clarinets and violins play in a two, doubling Tony’s melody. As in Jet

Song, Bernstein uses a rhythmic hemiola that destabilizes the rhythm of the music. However, in

contrast to Jet Song, the melody is now in two while the bass is in three, reversing the hemiola in

Jet Song. In effect, both songs have a sense of rhythmic instability that suggests youth or

inexperience, but each song still feels different due to this rhythmic interchange. In regards to

motives that appeared earlier in the score, Something’s Coming is not related directly to either

the ‘Jet’ motives or the ‘Shark’ motive. While the rhythmic hemiola suggests a relation to the
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Jets, Tony’s melodic tritone and the bass accompaniment of descending fourths highlights the

two main intervals in the third motive, which is associated with the Sharks. This mixture of

musical elements immediately distinguishes Tony as a character, and makes it difficult to

categorize him according to the motivic structure that Bernstein has established. This contrast

between the music of Jet Song and Something’s Coming highlights Tony’s role as an outsider to

the world of street gangs.

Example 8 – Bernstein and Sondheim, “Something’s Coming,” mm. 20–26

Besides the use of motivic contrast between Something’s Coming and the earlier songs of

the show, Bernstein uses rhythm, melody, and orchestration to further characterize Tony. The

opening of the song is in three-four, but soon changes to two-four, as shown in Example 8.

Despite this change in meter, the orchestra and melodic accents falls on every third eighth note
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(mm. 22-25), creating a sense of rhythmic instability that only resolves with the return to three-

four time in measure twenty-six. This pattern of one phrase of three-four followed by an unstable

phrase in two-four is repeated twice before leading into the refrain, which is more reliably in

two-four time. This rhythmic instability heightens the sense of anticipation in the song, pushing

the music forward with propulsive energy that matches Tony’s optimism. While the time

signature changes, the melody stays very similar in the A section (Example 9), and takes a lyrical

turn in the B section (mm. 102). The refrain follows a structure of AABAB, which is surprisingly

similar to the normal structure of many Broadway songs. After the refrain, the song returns to the

three-four time of the opening and slowly fades away as Tony suspends his final note, almost

Example 9 – Bernstein and Sondheim, “Something’s Coming,” mm. 56–59

refusing to end, still waiting for what lies ahead. The orchestration is kept light through the

continuous pizzicato of the cellos and basses and accompaniment dominated by clarinets and

violins. During the more lyrical B sections of the song, Bernstein uses the upper range of the

strings as well as celeste to suggest the dreamy youthfulness of Tony, a stark contrast to brass

and saxophone sounds that dominated Prologue and Jet Song. All of these elements combine in

the music to support the characterization of Tony as an innocent dreamer rather than yet another

member of the Jets.

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In each of the opening songs, Bernstein’s music not only supports the mood and character

of each scene, but also follows the ‘telescopic’ sequence of the narrative. In Prologue, Bernstein

matches the choreographed conflict on stage by staging a musical conflict in the score between

motives. After presenting these motives, Jet Song features the return of the two ‘Jet’ motives

from the Prologue, tightening the focus of the score as the narrative focuses exclusively on the

Jets. Finally, in Something’s Coming, Bernstein uses elements from both the ‘Jet’ and ‘Shark’

motives to create a song that subverts the musical structure of Prologue and Jet Song, failing to

categorize Tony as a Jet or a Shark. Through Bernstein’s use of motivic development,

orchestration, and rhythm, Something’s Coming characterizes Tony as a hopeful dreamer and an

outsider to the world of gang violence.


Bernstein, Leonard, and Sondheim, Stephen. West Side Story. San Francisco Symphony,

conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Accessed October 7, 2015. Spotify.

Bernstein, Leonard, and Sondheim, Stephen. “Prologue”, “Jet Song”, and “Something’s

Coming” in West Side Story (Vocal Score). New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., and Chappell

& Co., Inc., 1959.

Bernstein, Leonard, and Sondheim, Stephen. “Prologue”, “Jet Song”, and “Something’s

Coming” in West Side Story (Full Score). New York: Leonard Bernstein Music

Publishing Company LLC, 1959.