Music as Rhetoric

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Rhetoric, the art of persuasive communication, has origins in the earliest human civilizations. Persuasion by speech was a pillar of classical Greek education, and ancient writings from China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and elsewhere show varying levels and types of formalized rhetoric. Cicero identified the tripartite purpose of rhetoric as docere, movere, delectare—to teach, to move, to delight—a formula later claimed by Augustine for Christian oratory. In a less systematic way, these ambitions are present in vocal music, which aims to inform, convince and/or motivate a targeted audience.

The conception of music as rhetoric has developed into a minor, though enriching, topic of philosophy and musicology. Scholars of these disciplines are cognizant that a careful pairing of text and tones is often better at teaching, moving and delighting than an unaccompanied message.

Of particular note are theories pertaining to musico-liturgical performances in Jewish and Christian contexts. Music in these settings is valued for its ability to simultaneously convey conceptual and emotional content. Whether it is a choral piece, congregational melody, plainsong, biblical chant or something else, music is relied upon for ideological grooming, social conditioning, identity shaping and morale building. This succeeds both because of the emotionalizing effect of the sound and because the listener does not anticipate persuasion. Unlike a speech or debate, a song tends to be convincing without overtly revealing its objective.

The effectiveness of musical rhetoric has less to do with the music itself than the intention and conviction of the presenter(s) and/or composer. The use of song to sway a congregation has roots in biblical prophecy, which was closer to chant or speech-melody than true singing. The three-fold task of the prophet was to capture the people’s attention, admonish them for apparent sins, and compel them to live in accordance with religious precepts. The literary prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve Minor Prophets—voiced their pronouncements as poetry, an auditory medium closely related to (and arguably identical with) music.

Their style of oration was probably similar to that of Baptist preachers, whose sermons freely employ musical devices and exhibit movement reminiscent of a crafted composition. They begin with relaxed speech at normal volume, but as the talk intensifies, vocal pitch and decibels dramatically rise and fall. The preachers insert dramatic pauses, exaggerated punctuations, sustained syllabifications, poetic locutions and repeated phrases. The congregation is emotionally drawn to accept the content of the stylized discourse.

Rhetorical potential is present in music of divergent genres and situations. Whether it is the speech-song of a prophet or preacher, a Baroque piece guided by the doctrine of affections, or a blues song saturated with raw emotion, music is uniquely able to penetrate and win over the mind and spirit. We are compelled to feel what the performer feels and believe what the performer believes. And when we are ourselves the performers, it is almost impossible to avoid being moved in the direction the piece wishes to lead us.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions. 

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14 thoughts on “Music as Rhetoric

  1. Brittany

    Woow! this is an awesome piece! you have really open up my mind to allow me to understand the concept and goal that many artist aim to gain…never new they were considered the prophets!!

    Reply
  2. Elisabeth

    Hi! I’m a Norwegian Musical Theatre student and I’m starting to write my Bachelor in Musical theatre; where my “subject” is;
    What kind of Muisical Rhetorics are used to show the difference between the antagonists within a Musical, and why are the used.
    Do you know about any books or more articles I should read?
    It would help me a great deal. 🙂

    Reply
    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      There are a few older texts that might be of interest: Dwight Bolinger’s The Symbolism of Music, Hermann Keller’s Phrasing and Articulation: A Contribution to a Rhetoric of Music, and Deryck Cooke’s The Language of Music. These books address the issues of conveying meaning, evoking emotions, and persuading listeners through musical sounds. Is that the sort of thing you’re looking for?

      Reply
      1. Eric Kehoe

        Yes, thanks, I think these will be a good starting point. I am a grad student studying rhetoric/composition and also am fascinated by music. It’d be great to merge the two in some capacity.

  3. Stephanie

    Jonathan,
    I am so glad to have come across this post. I am currently writing a paper on rave culture and how music functions as a speech act. I would greatly appreciate if you are able to lead me in a new direction. Thank you in advance!

    Reply
    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      This case study, “The Aesthetics of Protest in UK Rave” — https://dj.dancecult.net/index.php/dancecult/article/view/287/264 — touches on issues that (I think) you’re exploring: rhetorical force, “performative protest,” group identity, etc.

      This one — Steven Brown’s introduction to Music and Manipulation: On the Social Uses and Social Control of Music, edited by Brown and Ulrik Volgsten — addresses the persuasiveness of music more generally: http://www.neuroarts.org/pdf/M&M_Chapter_1.pdf

      I hope these help…

      Reply
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  5. globalvoicesweb

    Hi Jonathan, thank you for your very insightful article! I’m a jazz BMus student who has composed music for a multilingual choir to shed light on the work interpreters and translators do (see http://www.globalvoicesweb.wordpress.com for more details). I’m also an EFL teacher who is evermore thinking about doing an MA analysing improvised musics linguistically such as Baroque, Jazz, Indian classical, Flamenco, Jewish Hazzan, Islamic Muezzin and Arabic Taqasim etc. I have discovered your article and the rhetoric in music by chance and have lots to catch up on. I wondered whether you know about Hatto Beyerle and his work at ECMA? I have bought ‘Speech, Music, Sound’ by Leeuwen that looks at the communicative use of sound and have read ‘The Singing Neanderthals’ by Mithen that traces the evolutionary history of music, predating it to language. In jazz there are a couple of books looking at jazz as a language such as ‘Developing a jazz language’ by Bergonzi. I will read your recommendations by Bolinger, Cooke and Keller and have found a couple more namely ‘Wordless rhetoric’ by Bonds and ‘Haydn and the performance of rhetoric’ by Beghin and Goldberg. Do you recommend these? and/or are there other sources analysing music linguistically or anything else relevant that I should find? Many thanks, Frank

    Reply
    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Hi Frank – Thanks for reading my little post. Your potential MA topic is intriguing. In the styles you mention, the interconnectedness of melody and language are very apparent – that is, how the flow, tonal variety, stresses, rhythm, etc. of a given language influence the melodic line. That connection has been at the heart of evolutionary discussions of song and speech since the beginning. (I’ve touched on the debate between Darwin and Herbert Spencer here: https://thinkingonmusic.wordpress.com/2015/03/20/musical-dialects/; and the basic relationship of song and speech here: https://thinkingonmusic.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/whistled-speech/). I haven’t read the books by Bond or Beghin and Goldberg; there are many, many volumes and articles out there addressing this broad topic from different angles. Just search “music” “language” in Google Books and Google Scholar. Your GlobalVoices project is fascinating. I’m not familiar with the ECMA – I’ll check it out!

      Reply

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