Pre-writer: Mike Rand
First Writer: Anne Mooney
Revision Feedback by: Tanya K. Rodrigue and Megan Grandmont
Edited by: Tanya K. Rodrigue, Julia Bennett, and Amy Zimmerman

Scholars have explored music in various ways, theorizing its rhetorical capabilities, identifying its rhetorical potentialities, and explaining how one can achieve particular purposes (van Leeuwen, 1999; McKee, 2006; Stedman, 2011, 2013). Theo van Leeuwen (1999) has argued that sounds “represent the actions of people, places and things” (p. 93). He has described “sound gestures” as acts, and “sound textures,” per Marshall McLuhan, as “aural wallpaper,” a vehicle that provides a setting (p. 112). Music that is used repetitively or in the background is textural, while music that stands out, or breaks established musical patterns and repetition, is gestural.

In addition to theorizing music, scholars like Heidi McKee (2006) and Kyle Stedman (2011, 2013) have identified its rhetorical potentialities. McKee, for example, has stated music works to “establish tone and atmosphere,” create mood, and evoke emotion (p. 343). Further, scholars have identified particular strategies to achieve proposed rhetorical functions of music. For instance, McKee (2006) and van Leeuwen (1999) have identified pitch, tempo, and rhythm as strategies, while Stedman (2013) has claimed music can create both transitions and listener expectations. Stedman has explained that musical transitions within and between tracks play a role in the meaning that unfolds in a composition. At the same time, he argued, listener engagement with musical transitions often births unexpected and often surprising sites of meaning making.

Faced with the possibility of deploying music as gestural and/or textural, among other affordances, we carefully considered our rhetorical goals for music using the skills of play, flexibility, and reflection.

Being Playful

Kyle Stedman (2011) has said that the meaning of music depends on not only its audience, but also its interaction with its surroundings. Further, he claimed that this “shifting (of) meaning is worthy of playful experimentation.” As we experimented with music in our audio projects, we carefully considered the meaning music could create and the actions it could perform. Mike Rand and M.P. Carver used music as sound gestures to enact emotional responses. In “Hit and Run: An Oral History,” Mike used tracks to create moods and evoke specific emotions in his audience at particular moments in time. When his brother described the accident, for example, Mike chose a musical piece with a slow tempo, a low pitch, and no fluctuation; he did so in an effort to evoke empathy and feelings of sorrow and loss.


M.P., likewise, sought to evoke a melancholy emotional reaction from listeners to mirror the tragic story of Laika. Amy Zimmerman, however, used music as sound texture in “Video Games: Not Just for Kids.” The music she chose provided a setting for the storyteller, creating a joyful atmosphere throughout the audio essay. The song, taken from the Super Mario Bros. franchise, fits van Leeuween’s (1999) description of joyful music: “[t]he melody rises, then falls sharply, then stays level [with a] lively tempo” (p. 95). While the music does indeed create a distinct atmosphere, it also acts through its engagement with other sounds, particularly voice, and thus contributes to the formation of knowledge construction sites.

Equipped with an understanding of transitions as rhetorical strategies, Amy, Mike, and M.P. carefully considered how transitions could help them achieve their goals.


Mike and Amy used music to transition between different sounds in their compositions, namely voice and silence. Mike used transitions to evoke particular emotions, build suspense, and fulfill listener expectations, whereas Amy used them to juxtapose different perspectives on gaming. M.P., on the other hand, used music to transition between sections of her prose/poetry project. These transitions worked to present ideas and bridge them, creating fluidity and coherence. At the same time, the musical transitions in their own right functioned as an integral component in the project, equally important to the spoken words. The transitions beg the listener to feel the performance and provide the time needed to digest and understand each component of “Laika.”

In deciding how to deploy their desired goals for music, M.P., Mike, and Amy chose musical tracks from different sources. Mike and Amy mined various websites to find music they thought would help them most effectively accomplish their goals. They experimented with various pieces, listening and thinking carefully about how each selection could meet their desired outcomes and/or what unexpected contributions they could make to the composition. In contrast, M.P. sought out the services of a musician friend and worked closely with him to develop the musical score. In turn, she, unlike Mike and Amy, had significant control over how the music would function rhetorically in her work. She and the musician ultimately decided to develop a track based on Russian guitar styles. This decision enabled M.P. to historically and culturally situate the composition in its location of origin, a move that helps to establish her ethos.

Being Flexible

As we experimented with music to achieve our goals, we discovered various constraints and encountered a number of challenges. Each individual struggled with unique difficulties and sought to overcome them in different ways.


Because Mike and Amy chose to use pre-recorded music, they had an overabundance of musical options from which to choose. As a result, they had to spend a significant amount of time weeding through their archives to identify the most fitting music. While Amy wove the Super Mario Bros. medley throughout her entire project, Mike chose several musical tracks, prompting him to carefully consider how to transition between and among them.

M.P. was dissatisfied with the transitions in her original live recording, yet did not believe another recording could achieve the many successes of the first. She solved this problem by asking her musician to record a second track of acoustic guitar. By layering the two guitar tracks together during the transitions, M.P. was able to more effectively achieve her desired goals.

Unlike Mike, Amy, and M.P., Dan Harris and Danah Hashem did not originally intend to include music in their compositions. After receiving feedback from colleagues, however, Dan chose to add music in order to more firmly establish a mood in his audio memoir “Grapefruits, Dipsticking, and Teddy.”  He used several tracks of music in an effort to create specific moods at different moments in his project. For example, when he describes Teddy’s harrowing-then-triumphant educational journey, the crescendo of the music evokes a feeling of grandness. The sentimental music, combined with Dan’s sarcasm and absurdity of the story itself, effectively built an ironic, humorous juxtaposition.

While Dan initially did not think to incorporate music in his project, Danah purposefully sought not to include music in her audio journal “A Week in March.” She did so in an effort to avoid establishing a particular tone and atmosphere, which she believed worked against her goal of recreating and preserving a day’s events. While editing her recordings, however, she discovered the presence of music at two distinct moments, and recognized that deleting the music would compromise the authenticity of the day. Thus, she kept the music to accurately preserve the memories.

Being Reflective

Stedman (2013) has suggested that “the more [a composer] listen[s] to how things develop, the more [the composer] discover[s].” After completing our projects, we reflected on our varying successes in our deployment of music. Amy believed the music in her piece was successful in that it evoked the joyful mood she had intended to establish. She also attributed music’s success to the tune’s ability to evoke “personal associations” (Stedman, 2011) as well as trigger collective cultural and generational memories. However, Amy felt that the music could not alone make her audience connect to the storyteller, and thus used the storyteller’s vocal qualities to supplement and complement the music.

Mike, on the other hand, believed his use of gestural music effectively functioned as an emotional appeal. His colleagues discussed their satisfaction with his use of musical transitions. The transitions, they said, built expectations, making the “thwarting” of those expectations much more impactful, especially when the audience discovers who had hit Chris (Stedman, 2013).


M.P., Dan, and Danah were also pleased with their use of music. M.P. felt fortunate to have had access to an experienced musician, without whom she felt her project would not have been successful. Dan was satisfied with the irony created between the music, with its slow tempo and dramatic feeling, and the ridiculousness of the story being told. With her use of music, Danah discovered its strong potential to capture personal memories. The music served to recreate and preserve these moments, enabling them to become “souvenirs” or “snapshots” of her day (Tonkiss, 2003, p. 306–307).


Music as a sonic strategy makes explicit the important relationship between composer and audience, in which the audience makes meaning through the composer, yet also despite the composer. While the composers’ use of music worked effectively to provide the audience with tone, atmosphere, setting, and transitions, in order to achieve some rhetorical goals, the composer had to rely entirely on the audience’s prior experiences, memories, and engagements with music. Music has the ability to evoke specific responses in different listeners based on each listener’s personal background with that music. These responses depend on the individual emotional connections that the audience uses to make meaning. In our projects, music proved to be an effective sonic strategy because it is able to reach its audience in such a personal and unique way, requiring the audience to create meaning of the projects through their own experiences.