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What Is the Role of Rhetoric in Music?

H. Bliss
H. Bliss

While the use of rhetoric in music can come in many forms, it most often appears as a method of choosing melodies, rhythms, and lyrics that are pleasing to the ear. In general, composers using rhetoric in music seek to align the rhetorical principles of speech with the techniques used to make good-sounding music. Rhetoric is mainly defined as the art employed to orchestrate persuasive speech. Much like speech, music is also an auditory experience on a chronological time line, which has inspired many composers to explore the application of the spoken art by using similar rhetoric in music.

How words are arranged into lyrics and how they are said or sung plays a large part in defining vocal style in a piece. The use of speech rhetoric in lyrics has apparent applications, since it can be used to design the words and phrases used in the song. Some styles of singing, like Gregorian chant, have specifically defined rhetorical rules that help define the vocal style of the genre.

Composers use rhetoric to connect music and lyrics, using the same principles that Aristotle theorized make a good speech.
Composers use rhetoric to connect music and lyrics, using the same principles that Aristotle theorized make a good speech.

Counterpoint, a system often used to compose baroque music, uses the relationships between notes to determine which notes would fit well into the sequence. There are several methods of composing with counterpoint. Like speech rhetoric in music, this composition technique assigns a method to producing a convincing end result.

Rhetorical modes like paraprosdokian, which is an unexpected way of ending a musical or spoken phrase, and tautology, which is an idea that is repeated in a new sentence, can have productive applications in composition and improvisational jazz. In addition to composition, rhetoric in music can also assist in the analysis of a piece. Comparing the arrangements of the melodic lines used in an improvisational solo can help define what makes a particular solo pleasurable to listen to. Though rhetoric is commonly seen as an overly dramatic, manipulative use of word to make an often political point, in language it is the study of written and spoken composition techniques that can help lead a writer to an effective, interesting, and convincing composition.

Since the ancient days of human society, famous philosophers and speakers like Aristotle have theorized that principals of rhetoric can be used to compose a convincing speech. Many call the practice of rhetoric an art, since the modes of rhetoric can still lead to unreadable writing, and they must be used only in ways that improve the composition. Though little proof exists that the application of rhetorical principals in music making produces a quality composition, selective application of rhetoric to music can act as an effective creative or brainstorming exercise that may produce pleasing results.

Discussion Comments


I have been puzzling about Puccini's Nessun Dorma, which is the theatrical high point of the opera Turandot. It is a moment with a full orchestra playing away, a chorus singing, the soloists singing and a death or a marriage about to take place.

To get at the rhetoric of this music, I am going to start by looking for two things taking place at once. What are the two things that the composer is trying to do or say to the audience?

With some musical themes and matching words, then what is the composer doing with that famous climactic moment. Who is announcing belief in what? What is coming unraveled?

Thanks for a helpful article. I see a starting point for exploring an interesting musical puzzle.


I can't say whether knowing which lyrics to put with which chords and beats is innate or whether this knowledge is something musicians learn as they gain experience, but the great artists have this ability to link all aspects of the music seamlessly.


Musical rhetoric is what brought about such major events as Woodstock in the United States. It is the rhetoric of music that allows the music to move masses of people in one direction or another. This is why music is often associated with political and social movements, and with individual political campaigns.


I had a Journalism professor in college who brought to our attention what the songs we listened to said about us. Sometimes people listen to songs without consciously considering the message of the lyrics.

After I took the professor's advice and paid close attention to the words in my favorite songs I realized they expressed many of my own beliefs, fears and observations.

The rhetoric (the precise and poetic use of words) in lyrics can hide the deeper meaning of the words. Music can be so powerful and influential because it connects to us even when we don't fully understand the reasons for the connection.

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    • Composers use rhetoric to connect music and lyrics, using the same principles that Aristotle theorized make a good speech.
      By: cosmind1
      Composers use rhetoric to connect music and lyrics, using the same principles that Aristotle theorized make a good speech.