Category Archives: preaching

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.