Snyder, Hassell, Blaauw-Hara, Babb, and Ferris
Music is a tricky thing to study in this field. Despite the fact that rhetoric and composition were sonic enterprises before they were print-based, the written word and, more recently, the image have consumed much of our disciplinary attention. Quite simply, words and images are things we can stare at. As Greg Goodale (2011) noted, "Because the voice [and sound more broadly] is ephemeral and fleeting, it cannot be made to fit into the scholarly scientific model that even scholars in the humanities must obey" (p. 5). While there are numerous scholarly texts on music, particularly in born-digital journals like enculturation and Kairos (such as Thomas Rickert's  special issue "Writing/Music/Culture," Cheryl Ball and Byron Hawk's  special issue "Sound in/as Compositional Space," and Jon Stone and Steph Ceraso's  special issue "Sonic Rhetorics."), we find that most of these excellent and foundational texts focus on sound, sonic experiences and ecologies, with few taking up recorded and performed music and its relationship to the composing process.
We have a rich corpus of research from the past half-century (with taproots extending significantly farther back in time) of a similarly difficult task: studying the writing process and its many effects on writers and audiences. These, like music, are often hard to stare at. We can approximate with think-aloud protocols, journals, interviews, and even eye-tracking software, but as so many scholars have wistfully observed, all fall short of understanding what goes on in that marvelous electricity as a writer writes, or why the right pairing of ideas causes goosebumps for the reader. As Stephen King (2000) quipped, writing is "telepathy, of course" (p. 95). I have a thought; I scribble shapes on a page and show them to you, and you now have a similar thought. Scientific research has un-magicked a great deal of those things which once inspired awe and wonder, and I myself wonder how often we overlook or take for granted the sort of magic that occurs when a person writes something that changes another person, including—and perhaps especially—themselves.
I also want to acknowledge up front that the study of music is not a fully accessible one. Nor, for that matter, is the study of writing. So much of the scholarship in both writing and music from any discipline, including ours, adopts a default ableist position that assumes anyone reading is capable of writing or hearing in the normalized ways we usually talk about it. I have wrestled with this and continue to struggle with the ways my deep attachment to music, resulting in my scholarly focus, inadvertently alienates or at least excludes some in the field, some I am privileged to call friends. I have also been grateful for generous and frank conversations with a few friends and mentors who identify with the deaf and disability community about ways to responsibly approach the study of sound and music with inclusivity, asking not "what can't you hear?" but instead "what can you hear?" and "how do you experience this?" and "what are you observing and experiencing that I am not? That I cannot?" This essay includes my attempt to operate from a position of cultural and experiential humility, and when I talk about "writing" and "singing" and "voice," I mean to include the widest definitions possible for these terms, in the same way our field embraces a wonderfully wide meaning of the words "text" and "reading."
The point thus far is that writing and music are subjective and personal; they get inside us and do things that few other human activities can do; and they're easier to experience than explain.
The authors of this symposium webtext first convened online, a mix of friends and strangers who shared two common interests that we believed were interrelated, writing and music. We think it perfectly appropriate that the word "composition" is shared between writers and musicians, as are many other descriptors we frequently use in both fields, such as tone, rhythm, hook, pace, frequency, repetition, rhyme, meter, and more. A good piece of writing is sometimes said to "sing," and I maintain a good essay follows the internal logic of a song... An effective hook sets the tone of the piece, establishes the direction, introduces the idea textually and/or musically. Ideas and arguments are introduced in verse(s), uniting around and reinforcing a thesis (refrain). Other perspectives enter—a bridge, the middle eight section. The conclusion returns the audience to the main idea, and—in a good essay, story, or song—leaves the reader with something new. A "so what," a variation on a theme. Maybe a double chorus. A reprise.
Something we often forget (because we cannot stare at it) is that music is material. It's physical. It literally penetrates us, and we are powerless to stop it. As Steph Ceraso (2018) noted, we experience sound synesthetically, although those among us with typical auditory capacity often neglect the multiple additional ways sound converges in and around our bodies (p. 35). Sonic experiences are not just out there to be studied; they are inside us to be felt and experienced. And, like a turn of phrase, a memorable character, or an insightful reflection, music lingers. There's the natural reverberation as it moves through space, changing slightly with each encounter with a physical object—no two sets of ears hear exactly the same thing, no two bodies feel music the same way. And, of course, emotionally, it's the same. I remember the first time I heard "Them Bones" by Alice in Chains, some Saturday night at a friend's house playing pool in his basement, another friend dropping the CD in the player. I jumped when that opening note hit, a flush of adrenaline shooting up the sides of my throat as Layne Staley yelled with the first downbeat. When I dubbed my own cassette of the album and popped it in the car the next time I was driving with my dad, however, I watched him grow increasingly tense until finally asking me what I found appealing about "that kind of music." The embodied, multimodal sonic experience Ceraso described was occuring in both of us simultaneously, but with vastly different effects.
In a similar way, we can't escape writing. Aside from the fact that our entire economic, government, and social structures are constructed and coded with the written word, and those words are infused with all of the systemic injustice and oppression in each of those systems, we live in an era where more writing is being generated than any other in the history of the world, thanks in part to social media, algorithms, and bots. It would certainly lead those in previous generations to wonder what we find so appealing about "that kind of writing." And yet, here we are—me writing and you reading. Telepathy.
The point thus far is that writing and music are subjective and personal; they get inside us and do things that few other human activities can do; and they're easier to experience than explain.
What we do know for certain, however, is that writing and music, since their invention, have been essential components of world-building, both in our imaginations and around the globe. As Jacques Attali (2002) insisted,
There is no power without the control of noise and without a code for analyzing, marking, restricting, training, repressing, and channeling sound, be it the sound of language, of the body, of tools, of objects, or of relationships with others and with oneself. All music—all organization of sounds—is a method of creating or consolidating a community; it is the link of power with its subjects, and an attribute of this power, whatever its form. Moreover, there is no freedom without music. It inspires [humans] to rise above [themselves] and others, to go beyond standards and rules, to build an idea—however fragile—of transcendence. And precisely because noise is at once an instrument of power and a source of rebellion, political powers have always been fascinated by what their subjects listen to. (p. x)
When I say that music has political power, I mean it in a feminist sense, connecting the personal and private to the political through matters of identity and self, agency and freedom, and the ability to be seen by being heard. I can think of no better recent example of music creating space for individuals to heal (in the etymological sense of the word, to become whole) than in the massively inspiring song by Brandi Carlile, "The Joke." (Full lyrics here.)
Like an effective piece of writing, Carlile’s song and its corresponding music video derive their rhetorical force from a synergistic juxtaposition of multiple elements. Musically, the song begins quietly in a contemplative mood, combining soft piano chords, a cello, and a ride cymbal. The simplicity of each instrument’s part and their respective sonic frequencies leave space in the music, setting a flexible open stage for the song’s ideas to appear and develop. As the lyrics begin, Carlile sings in second person, addressing the listener directly. Putting the song in the audience’s perspective serves as an invitation to identify with characters being described, each verse coming from the mind of a marginalized person. Carlile cleverly indicates understanding the inner life of the characters (i.e., audience) by voicing private worries and concerns, and then uses rhetorical framing to connect individual experiences to larger structural social issues like homophobia and patriarchy. In the chorus, Carlile uses an us-versus-them dyad, but deliberately casts the dominant group as them.
They can kick dirt in your face
Dress you down, and tell you that your place
Is in the middle, when they hate the way you shine
I see you tugging on your shirt
Trying to hide inside of it and hide how much it hurts (Verse 1)
You get discouraged, don't you, girl?
It's your brother's world for a while longer
We gotta dance with the devil on a river
To beat the stream
Call it living the dream, call it kicking the ladder (Verse 2)
Let 'em laugh while they can
Let 'em spin, let 'em scatter in the wind
I have been to the movies, I've seen how it ends
And the joke's on them (Chorus)
Actors portraying multiple diverse identities in "The Joke"
As the song develops lyrically, the music reflects the journey of the characters from insecurity and isolation to self-love and community. The song is in a major key, generally associated with happier themes, but it makes use of a minor dominant chord and minor sevenths in the scale. Those elements darken the brightness of the major scale, supporting the lyrical themes. As the chorus adds Carlile's encouraging advice, instruments join in as if lending emotional support in addition to sonic reinforcement, and Carlile's voice occupies a higher register with more force. She builds in this way toward the rest of the song, culminating toward an exultory moment where the music pauses for one final breath before ascending to the song's highest point in both pitch and volume. Carlile's final notes soar above the music as her characters might rise above the abuse and oppression experienced in the song's narrative. The video linked above is also simply done, neatly complementing the song with a rotating cast of everyday people from different backgrounds singing along with the lead vocal, again reinforcing the identification available in lyrics.
This quick explication of "The Joke" attempts to enact what each author has contributed in this symposium: We see the tropes of the country and Americana genres of music being followed, while other variables in the form subvert stereotypes and conventions commonly expressed in this genre. We find a multiplicity of voices and images in the song and video privileging marginalized voices and nondominant discourse. And we discover multiple discursive identities that not only the singer inhabits, but through her second-person voice, are made available to the audience as well.
In this webtext, we've focused on the relationship between music and writing to look at how understanding more about music can give us insights into composition, both production and product. Much of what's been discussed includes deeply rhetorical acts that are so fundamentally human they transcend our discipline. (Although I guess it IS called the humanities for a reason.) In this conclusion, this reprise, I want to return to the list Holly opened with and then leave you with a "so what" that I hope will, like a great chorus, penetrate us and linger.
We know conventions get codified and then calcified into recognizable patterns, which is both helpful and harmful. Babb, Blaauw-Hara, and Snyder each provided different examples of creative interventions or revisions to musical genres that suggest some possibilities to how we might think about navigating questions of genre in the classroom. If, for example, we know that players have agency with melody but must work within the key and chord progression, what is the "key" and "chord progression" we need to provide students so they may be free to improvise over the top of it? Or, drawing from the bateria, what are the nondominant instruments and voices that breathe life and rhythm into the regular, expected tempo of, let's say, a literature review? The wide variety of ever-evolving music is a great reminder that genres are mutable and socially constructed. If a genre is socially constructed, however entrenched it might feel at the time, we know it can and most likely will be changed. What's more, we can participate in that change, as can our students.
Remembering that writing is a technology we invented and not transcribed thought (and that even our thoughts are only attempts to represent reality to ourselves), music reminds us that we can explore, create, complicate, inhabit, and abandon identities. There is room in both writing and music to contract and expand liminal spaces, to reveal the unseen, to voice the unheard, to amplify or silence. Considered against genre, it seems possible that we can forge new genres from new identities, and we can likewise revise existing identities and genres in the same way. We can choose to abandon that which no longer serves us, or we can return to retrieve something we left behind. Where in our pedagogy are we explicitly inviting students to invert roles and relationships, subvert stereotypes, challenge canon, and try on new voices that are extensions or even new versions of their identities and perspectives? Revision teaches us about impermanence, and impermanence reminds us that the future is yet to be written.
Composition is an act of creation, of speaking into existence something that was not there before. Writers and musicians alike gain and grow audiences through the unique quality of their voices, and encouraging students to find their voice through the practices and habits of writing is one of the greatest tools one human being can show another how to use. Snyder reminds us through the example of the bateria that different voices can create cacophony or euphony. In what ways are we helping student writers develop facility in different instruments and voices? How are we fostering joy in the process?
Writing is meant to be read, even if only by the writer in the act of writing. Music is meant to be heard, even if only by the musician in the moment of performing. Plenty of personal benefits of writing and making music exist, but the power of sharing writing and music with others is exponentially greater. Connections between reading and empathy are well-documented, as are the physical and emotional benefits of listening to music. More than that, writing and music galvanize people around common ideas. As Michael Warner (2002) theorized, publics emerge around text, forming through the act of circulation. And in that circulation, Warner continued, a public has the ability to reinscribe the text and actually change its meaning. Connecting to the creative voice, a community can build a new reality in the way they consume and respond to texts. This is easily observable in the music of the Civil Rights Movement, in which songs gave participants a sense of shared identity and purpose. Lyrics gave singers a vocabulary and a rhetorical frame to understand who they were, what they were doing, and where they were going. The music—the physical, material music that touched them all at once—reminded them of their embodied connectedness in a time when unity was vital to their survival. As Snyder observes in this symposium, "A bateria is not one drum alone."
There is room in both writing and music to contract and expand liminal spaces, to reveal the unseen, to voice the unheard, to amplify or silence.
Resistance, critique, and subversion
Anyone with a voice has the ability to resist, critique, or subvert the status quo. Sometimes these acts are outwardly significant, like nailing 95 theses to a church door; other times, they're inwardly enormous, like deciding that a different name better suits us. Our society is so enslaved to its cultural logics, perpetuated by our entertainment industries, that we've largely forgotten that creating—including writing and singing—is a fundamentally human activity, not a vocation that must be earned. We used to be a singing people, but reality TV shows like American Idol taught us to keep our mouths shut and to ridicule any who dare to make a sound unless we look and sound like what three people behind a table deem worthy. The only criterion needed to justify a person writing or singing should be a pulse, and our job as writing instructors is to encourage, praise, and reward every single attempt our students make in using their voice. And this alone is political—this alone is an act of resistance, critique, and subversion—if we give them room to experiment, to fail, to succeed in ways our rubrics rarely allow. We need to widen our definitions of value to allow everyone a seat in the choir.
The reason I love Brandi Carlile's "The Joke" so much is for the future I imagine for every person who might hear that and feel seen, understood, validated, and valued, maybe for the first time in their lives. I can't help but envision them finding and using their voice, clinging to hope that there are enough like-minded people on this planet that if we could all just find each other and sing the same song for a while, we can sing new worlds into existence. I'm reminded here of Salomé Voegelin's (2014) observations in Sonic Possible Worlds.
Sound is the invisible layer of the world that shows its relationships, actions, and dynamics. Listening generates place, the field of listening, continual from my hearing of myself within the dynamic relationship of all that sounds: the temporary connections to other listeners, things, and places, as the contingent life-world of my listening intersubjectivity that hears the actual, the possible, and even in the impossible participating in the ephemerality of the unseen. (p. 3)
Speaking of connections, I mentioned that the authors of this webtext were a mix of friends and strangers who found a common interest in writing and music. We first presented this material as a panel at the 2019 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Pittsburgh, PA, and in addition to writing together, we made music together. The bond we all strongly felt through sharing our writing and music is what led to the discussion of this webtext before the day was through, even before we knew a special issue on sound was simultaneously being conceived by others. In that spirit of community, retaining the joy of creation and wonder at composing together, we offer, of course, a song.
Attali, Jacques. (2002). Foreword. In Regula Burckhardt Qureshi (Ed.), Music and Marx. Routledge.
Ball, Cheryl, & Hawk, Byron (Eds). (2006). Computers and Composition [Special Issue: Sound in/as compositional space: A next step in multiliteracies], 23(3).
Ceraso, Steph. (2018). Sounding composition: Multimodal pedagogies for embodied listening. University of Pittsburgh Press.
Goodale, Greg. (2011). Sonic persuasion: Reading sound in the recorded age. University of Illinois Press.
King, Stephen. (2000). On writing. Pocket Books.
Rickert, Thomas. (Ed.). (1999). Enculturation [Special issue: Writing/music/culture], 2(2). http://www.enculturation.net/2_2/toc.html
Stone, Jon, & Ceraso, Steph. (Eds.). (2019). Harlot [Special issue: Sonic rhetorics], 9. http://harlotofthearts.org/index.php/harlot/issue/view/9
Voegelin, Salomé. (2014). Sonic possible worlds. Bloomsbury.
Warner, Michael. (2014). Publics and counterpublics. Zone Books.