I was driving to work yesterday, listening to classical music on satellite radio, and I heard Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite.
Pretty cool piece of music, but to me the fifth and final movement is something really special. It's called "Cloudburst" and is a musical depiction of a thunderstorm in the desert.
And the thought occurred to me that you don't need words to tell a story. Grofé gives us a picture in sounds -- the approach of the storm, lightning, thunder, wind -- then its subsidence (and just like in a real storm, afterward you can still hear the thunder in the distance as it recedes).
This is a pretty well-known piece of music, and is far from the only one that tells a story using music. Another famous one is Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre, depicting the devil playing the fiddle and summoning the dead to dance in the cemetery (xylophones for the bones knocking together!). Listen at the end for the church bells ringing in the distance to signal the sunrise, and the little musical shiver the devil gives when he knows the day is coming -- followed by a sad, mournful solo. But then, the last few notes seem to promise that he'll be back once night falls again.
Beethoven drew his inspiration from stories as well, and I'm not only thinking of pieces like the Pastoral Symphony. Check out this amazing performance of his piano solo Rondo a Capriccio: Rage Over a Lost Penny. (All I can say is that if losing a penny made me come up with tunes like this, I'd be flinging coins all over the place.)