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Psychedelic Headphones.

A New Composition, a 21st Century Pedagogy, and the Rhetoric of Music

Crystal VanKooten

On presentation day in my first-year writing class, Kaitlyn Patterson hooked up her laptop to the projector to display her final essay, a digital video.  The video opened by flashing moving images of an athlete: someone shooting a basketball through a hoop, the same person hitting a golf ball with a club, the athlete taking a swing at a tennis ball with a racket.  Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” began to play, and on the screen between the images appeared written questions: “Male or Female?  Girl or Boy?  Man or Woman?  Does it Matter?”  I watched as footage taken from the point of view of the athlete running down a track began to roll, and Survivor began to sing, “Rising up, back on the street.  Did my time, took my chances…”  More footage of a variety of female athletes flicked by: marathon runners like Kathrine Switzer, volleyball players, pole vaulters, gymnasts.  And text faded in: “Sports Belong to Everyone.”  In my seat, I was flushed, emotional, and excited, blown away by the rhetorical power of the images, text, and music in Kaitlyn’s video.  She had used a combination of these modes of expression to present her argument in a personal and powerful way to her audience.[1]

Kaitlyn composed this video for a first-year writing course I taught at the University of Michigan.  At UM, like at many institutions, the stated purpose of first year writing can be nebulous—does it exist to prepare students for other writing they will compose in college, or to get students ready to participate as professional, literate citizens and workers in society?  Do we instruct in composition process to teach students to compose genre-specific academic arguments, teach them to craft texts that are appropriate for the communities in which they live, or try to fulfill all of these goals?  With these questions in mind, my approach to first-year writing is above all rhetorical.  In the 4th century, Aristotle defined rhetoric as “an ability, in each case, to see the available means of persuasion,” (36) and this truly is the goal for students who pass through my course: to be able to recognize all available persuasive means and communicative options, to choose among them effectively in any given composition situation, and to create appropriate and persuasive texts for contexts and audiences inside and outside of the university.  Ideally, my course would help students reach this goal by bringing them to a point of greater awareness of what means of persuasion and rhetorical choices are at their disposal, along with instilling in them a greater rhetorical sensitivity to what particular choices craft an effective text in what contexts. 

As Kaitlyn and her classmates began to move toward this goal through composing their first essay, some students were initially uncomfortable, unsure of form and style.  They asked if they had to have a thesis statement or if they could use the first person.  In response, we discussed how skilled composers make these kinds of decisions about texts always with audience, author, and context in mind.  And as we moved through the course, I began to realize that in addition to learning how to make rhetorically sensitive choices about language, my students also needed to learn how to make rhetorically sensitive choices about mode and media.  Today, composing often involves more than just the printed word.  My students have computers, mobile telephones, portable music players, video recording devices, and other digital and electronic technologies readily available to them, technologies that enable them to compose new types of texts and to disseminate them to a large, even global audience.  Writing in the 21st century is no longer only performed with paper and pencil or word processing programs, but often takes place in diverse online environments.  Web applications like chatrooms, wikis, and blogs blur the lines between producers and consumers of text by allowing texts to be redesigned, added to, and manipulated by any user, and many students also participate in other unique online composition practices such as gaming, fanfiction authorship, and creating and up-keeping webpages that utilize a constant stream of words, images, and sounds in combination.  Realizing that my students have the ability to compose with diverse media in various contexts led me to assign Essay 4, a final composition in which students could choose the mode of presentation for the product and direct the composition to a specific audience outside the classroom.  Students could present an argument to their chosen audience using print, image, sound, or a combination of these modes like Kaitlyn did—an allowance that truly expanded the available rhetorical options for presenting an argument.  This type of assignment that moves beyond print-only composition based on self-selected purposes and audiences benefits students as they encounter and create different modes of expression and media in and out of schools, in 21st century work worlds, and in online environments. 

As I think about the day I first viewed Kaitlyn’s video, I now realize I was so struck because of the skilled ways Kaitlyn employs multiple modes of expression, but especially the rhetoric of music[2], in the opening seconds and throughout the composition itself.  Through her composition process, Kaitlyn made choices about how many and what kind of images to use, how much and what kind of written text to use, and what music would effectively carry and support her persuasive point, combining songs and lyrics with images and text and leveraging powerful appeals to pathos, ethos, and logos.  This realization led me back to speak with Kaitlyn after our course was completed to discuss with her the rhetorical choices she made while composingShe allowed me to video tape our discussion, and pieces of the interview can be viewed, along with clips from her video “Gender Inequality in Sports,” in the companion video “Writing with Sound: The Rhetoric of Music.  This video is in itself an argument for the power and complexity of multiple modes of expression and the rhetoric of music in multimedia composition, showing how Kaitlyn uses music in her composition as more than a simple emotional appeal, but for organization, for emphasis, for contrast, and for persuasion itself. 

 “Writing with Sound: The Rhetoric of Music” brings to light the multiple and complex ways Kaitlyn uses music in her own video to craft an argument and persuade her audience.  As Kaitlyn explains, she uses Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” as a hook for her composition, catching attention and providing an upbeat, energetic introduction.  She layers the song’s lyrics with images of female athletes, highlighting themes such as “the will to survive” that are central to the video’s argument, and she leverages the power of irony by using a man singing about struggle alongside her argument for respect for female athletes.  She uses Kanye West’s “Stronger,” to provide contrast and organize the video into sections that use different pieces of evidence.  As West raps, in fact, almost yells, “that’s how long I’ve been on ya,” Kaitlyn’s message against the pervasive power of the media’s stereotypes of male and female athletes yells at the audience just as loudly and clearly.  Next, Kaitlyn uses Rihanna’s “Standing Ovation,” to ironically drive home her point about the exploitation of the female athlete in the media and the female athlete’s responsibility as role model, purposefully juxtaposing images with repeated lyrics and melody.  Finally, Kaitlyn selects the Olympic Fanfare to layer on top of written words and images, aiming to stir audience emotion and to bring to mind the cultural associations of the Olympics such as unity and respect for all athletes.  The song also functions as a conclusion and brings the video to a close in the end.  Kaitlyn uses lyrics, instruments, melody, voice, intensity, familiarity—these all collide with emotion and with logic, with words and with images, to forward the argument of respect for all athletes, both male and female.  While Kaitlyn’s video does have weaknesses—it does not address some counterarguments to the thesis, it oversimplifies a bit in the end, and it uses silence in one section in a mysterious way—the video as a whole is successful and persuasive because Kaitlyn’s choice of images and written text, and especially her choice of music all utilize the complex and combined power of pathos, ethos, and logos to reach the audience.   

New Terminologies and a 21st Century Pedagogy

As I reflect on Kaitlyn’s composition and all of the work my students composed for Essay 4, two issues come to my attention that are extremely important to the ways we talk about our subject matter and the pedagogies we employ in today’s Composition classrooms.  The first issue that the assignment and my students raise is the confusing nature of the terms we use to discuss the creation and consumption of texts.  Because of this confusion, we are in need of clarity with old terminologies along with the development of new terminologies for the 21st century Composition classroom that will orient instructors and students not just to old ways of composing, but also to all new and evolving rhetorical choices.  And because of this vast and ever-expanding number of rhetorical choices, instructing students in how to see and select wisely is becoming more and more complex. 

This is the second issue that comes to my attention through thinking about Essay 4: how can instructors best guide students through today’s composition process, teaching them to recognize the vast array of rhetorical choices in front of them and to make rhetorically sensitive decisions?  If our goal as instructors is to help students to see and choose wisely among all available means of persuasion, then we will most surely find ourselves assisting students in negotiating meaning-making practices that have traditionally fallen outside the purview of English departments, practices such as composing with visuals, audio and video clips, music, and sound effects, to start.  Indeed, it is impossible for us to become experts in all of the communicative means to which our students have access, but it is possible to create classroom environments where multiple modes of expression are explored, highlighted, consumed, discussed, analyzed, theorized, and used in compositions. 

This type of instruction would assist students that aren’t as successful at seeing and making choices and crafting an effective multimodal product on their own as Kaitlyn is.  Beyond my exhortations that my students simply use different modes of expression, I offered Kaitlyn and her classmates almost no guidance in how to make rhetorically sound choices that involved modes of expression beyond the printed word.  Composition instructors like me desperately need a new 21st century pedagogy that highlights all available means of persuasion, that allows students to discuss, analyze, and evaluate the choices they make and to become aware of why they make these choices, and that provides a clear and rhetorically appropriate way to articulate the effectiveness of the choices in the end.  When students become aware of the how and the why, knowledge becomes explicit and more easily transferable to new contexts, purposes, and audiences.

As a first step that begins to address, however imperfectly, these two issues, I argue that Composition instructors adopt a new definition of composition that is characterized by multiplicity, participation, and convergence, a definition that foregrounds all rhetorical choices available to 21st century composers, but in particular the rhetoric of music, one often overlooked and powerful means of persuasion available to composers today.  Music that is used effectively persuades through appealing to pathos, ethos, and logos as it evokes and influences emotional response, creates character, and carries and supports argument.  Because of music’s ability to use all three of these rhetorical appeals effectively, I urge English Composition instructors to enact a theory of composition in classrooms that forwards the rhetoric of music, a theory that seeks to validate the potential of music for persuasion among and along with other means of persuasion such as the written word and the image that are already valid in our discipline.

A New Composition: Multiplicity, Participation, and Convergence

At the beginning of the composition process for Essay 4, my students began thinking through the requirements and asking initial questions about the assignment.  “So essay 4 isn’t really an essay?” one student asked.  Another student: “we don’t actually have to write this essay?”  For these students and this assignment, and especially within the context of our largely print-centric course sequence, terms like essay and writing had become imprecise and confusing.  Truly, for my students in this moment, writing was not just print writing anymore.

Rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke illustrates how the reality that humans experience is mediated by the terminologies we use within our symbol systems.  Burke claims that “even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (45).  Thus our choice of terminologies necessarily directs attention in a selected or chosen direction and deflects that attention from others.  This direction of attention is facilitated by what Burke labels terministic screens, a necessary and unavoidable result of the human act of creating meaning within a symbol system.  Burke’s notion of reality as mediated by terministic screens is key to the way we in Composition currently discuss the reading and writing practices of our students in the 21st century.  By nature of the terms we use to discuss these issues, attention is drawn to some areas and away from others.  Writing and composition themselves function as terministic screens, as my students’ experiences with Essay 4 illustrate, orienting us to those modes of expression used commonly in the past: the written, the printed, and sometimes even the visual. 

The ways in which our current terminologies screen attention to certain areas and ignore others also comes to light when the growing number of rhetorical choices available to students today is considered.  No longer can traditional notions of singular print literacies describe what we in Composition mean when we talk about reading and writing in and out of our classrooms.  Kathleen Blake Yancey recognizes this, as well, pointing out that compositionists of today have before them a unique moment where “never before have writing and composing generated such diversity in definition” (298).  Specifically, she asks,

What is writing, really? It includes print: that seems obvious. But: Does it include writing for the screen? How visual is it? Is it the ability to move textual resources among spaces, as suggested by Johndan Johnson-Eilola?  Is composing, as James Porter suggests, not only about medium but also specifically about technology? Suppose I said that basically writing is interfacing? What does that add to our definition of writing? What about the circulation of writing, and the relationship of writing to the various modes of delivery? (298-9) 

These important questions highlight the pressing need for today’s compositionists and writing instructors to sort out what they mean by writing, composing, and composition, and to articulate these definitions clearly to our students.

  Composition scholar and teacher Bump Halbritter grapples with the need to be clear about terms, as well.  He views composition as separate from traditional print writing, arguing that the terms composition and writing themselves have been conflated or misrepresented, and are not or should not be synonymous.  Writing, for Halbritter, “privileges the visual elements, especially the textual” (“Sound” 14), and directs attention away from other modes of expression such as sound, gesture, movement, and the multimodal.  Instead of conflating writing and composition, therefore, Halbritter argues that today’s composition does not have to include traditional writing: “Writing entails composing, but composing does not entail writing.  Thus, the visual metaphors that have been appropriate for writing, are not necessarily appropriate for composition” (“Sound” 18).  Print writing, then, can be one facet or one “genre” of a 21st century composition, which involves producing and consuming professional and academic discourse through textual and non-textual representation (Halbritter “Sound” 217).  Along with his own redefinitions, Halbritter mixes in the theories of other Composition scholars who have grappled with this same issue.  Kathleen Blake Yancey states that composition isn’t just writing anymore, but is now composition, a more appropriate term for evoking “issues like design, issues like weaving together disparate elements, [and] issues like the connection to art” (qtd. in Halbritter Sound 14).  Victor Vitanza writes that “the word ‘composition’ is not ‘writing’ or ‘rhetoric’ though it of course is analogous with these words. There are overlays among them” (qtd. in Halbritter Sound 211).  Both Yancey and Vitanza, as cited by Halbritter, highlight the multidisciplinary, overlapping nature of a 21st century, evolving notion of composition, a notion that is expanding to include consideration of principles of design, practices of weaving and combination, connections to what has been labeled “art” in other disciplines, traditional print writing, and rhetoric, to start. 

So here we are.  As composition, writing, design, art, and rhetoric collide, scholars and teachers like Halbritter, Yancey, Vitanza, and instructors of Composition like me grapple with definitions of composition that prove useful and allow our discipline to recognize and utilize all means of persuasion available in the 21st century.  Like Halbritter, I see in the term composition more promise and possibility to acknowledge and point toward the wide array of 21st century meaning-making practices, practices that include and extend traditional notions of print writing.  However, in order to be most useful, we must clearly define the term composition for ourselves and our students in ways that highlight and encourage meaning-making in multiple modes of expression. 

This clear definition begins, for me, with the notion of a 21st century composition as multiple and shifting.  In an expanding digital world, students compose with a diverse set of tools that enables them to produce and consume a variety of texts, and composers will continue to use an ever-changing repertoire of new tools to create new multimodal texts in the future.  Non-traditional composition practices such as remix and collage are finding new expression and possibility in today’s digital environments and are making their way into our classrooms.  The forms and varieties of texts are destined to change and keep changing as technologies and the roles of authors and receivers evolve and merge, and a current, relevant definition of composition for today must recognize this shifting nature. 

Along with its multiplicity, I also define today’s composition as participatory, where audience plays a key role in original and remixed text design and often alters and interacts with the character of texts. Old definitions for composition focus on text production, and writing and reading have often been discussed as separate yet related activities.  However, today’s digital environments such as social networking webpages and video sharing platforms facilitate a merging of text production and consumption, and the worlds of writing and reading are moving closer together.  Reception of 21st century electronic texts such as wall posts or videos is increasingly complex and participatory, with authors and readers able to consume texts in non-linear fashion and perform multiple functions.  The role of audience is much more than passive receiver of information or even co-constructor of inner meaning in today’s wired environments, as audience members can make choices and contribute to content directly and externally as they consume texts. 

Third, my definition of today's composition is characterized by what Henry Jenkins labels convergence: “where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways” (2).  This notion of convergence illustrates how today’s composition is truly about combination: old and new tools and delivery technologies such as word processors and web cameras come together, old and new types of texts such as the written essay and the digital musical track converge, and producers become consumers who in turn produce more text. 

In sum, a relevant 21st century definition of composition as characterized by notions of multiplicity, participation, and convergence seeks to highlight the value of all rhetorical choices and available means of persuasion students have within their grasp.  But instructors who employ this new definition of composition in classrooms are still in need of practical pedagogies that orient them and their students not only to written and visual composing modalities, but toward other modes of expression as well, most notably toward sound and music.  Music is a powerful rhetorical tool that must be considered as a part of any theory of new media composition or multimodal text design.  Just as today’s composition is a convergence of tools, texts, contexts, producers, and consumers, so too must today’s Composition instructors highlight the ways music can converge with other modes of expression to most effectively communicate an argument.  To continue to ignore the rhetorical capabilities of sound and music in our discipline is not only to limit ourselves as instructors, but to limit the ability of our students to fully realize all available means of persuasion.  We need a theory of multiple, participatory, and convergent composition for today that explicitly recognizes the rhetoric of music along with all other modes of expression and seeks to put this theory to work in the classroom.

Highlighting the Rhetoric of Music

Music was central to both Kaitlyn’s composing process for Essay 4 and the video product she created, as her comments in “Writing with Sound: The Rhetoric of Music” reveal.  When composing multimodally, many students choose, like Kaitlyn did, to use music as a central part of their argument.  However, instructors and compositionists aren’t paying enough attention to the complex ways sound and music can be used, often over-simplifying the use of music as only an emotional appeal or viewing it as background.  Cynthia Selfe has pointed out the lack of attention to the rhetoric of sound in Composition as a field, as well, suggesting that even though sound seems to be central in the lives of most students, it is undervalued as a compositional mode (617).  Indeed, sound often plays second or third fiddle to print and image in the composition classroom, viewed as a backdrop or an add-on to these other modes. 

Selfe joins others in the field who are asking for instructors and students to give renewed attention to sound and aurality in the writing classroom.  Part of this call was sounded in 2006 as Computers and Composition published an issue that focused on composing with sound, along with an accompanying online set of essays and sound files.  In this issue, authors explore what an attention to sound in multimedia and multimodal composition offers to composers and instructors: new roles for author and audience (Comstock and Hocks); the creation of new text forms and communities of authorship and production (Rickert and Salvo); honoring diversity in the classroom through the use of different types of sound such as singing, rapping, beats, dialogue, and sound effects (Shankar); and new types of texts composed with the practices of sampling, mixing, and remixing through the weaving together of experiences, texts, and sounds (Shankar; Rice).  These affordances point to the need for what Michelle Comstock and Mary Hocks label a critical sonic literacy, defined as “the ability to identify, define, situate, construct, manipulate, and communicate our personal and cultural soundscapes.”  But, again, the problem: Heidi McKee points out that teachers and students in Composition lack detailed frameworks for talking about sound and how it functions (337).  Indeed, specific pedagogies and activities that seek to help students develop sonic literacies through the effective use of vocal delivery, music, sound effects, and silence in their work are missing from the toolboxes of many Composition teachers, and many instructors lack specific definitions of what this effective use involves and how it should be evaluated.  To address this lack of attention to sound, to redefine terminologies and use them to shift attention onto modes of expression beyond the printed and the visual, to validate and extend the work of students like Kaitlyn who are already composing with music, and to begin to develop specific pedagogies that expand the rhetorical choices available to all students and attend with purposefulness to sonic literacies, instructors must embrace a 21st century definition of composition that recognizes and highlights the rhetoric of music. 

Music is an integral component of the human experience and is present in a myriad of social and cultural contexts across the globe.  Of all the types of sound that students have available to them for use in digital and non-digital composition environments, music is one choice with which students have some experience.  New recording and delivery technologies have made music more accessible and portable than ever before, allowing composers like Kaitlyn to easily use music in the texts they assemble inside and outside of schools.  Music is also a powerful means of persuasion, as I was reminded of as I listened to Survivor sing out Kaitlyn’s thesis so strikingly.  Not only can music evoke, intensify, and coordinate emotion, but it can also develop character, carry an argument, organize a composition, elicit cultural associations, and link to memory, to start.  These rhetorical capabilities of music have been explored in detail in other fields outside of English Composition such as Film and Media Studies, Music, Cultural Studies, and Neuroscience.  In the next section, I bring some of this expertise together as I lay out how music can be used along with other modes of expression most effectively to persuade an audience.  In order to fully offer students access to all available means of persuasion and to enable them to make the most effective rhetorical choices possible, I argue that Composition instructors highlight music’s persuasive potential and give students language with which they can describe and discuss the rhetoric of music in their own work and the work of others. 

Articulating and Evaluating how Music Enacts Persuasion

To begin to acknowledge the rhetorical power of music, Composition instructors must first allow and encourage students to actually compose using music along with other modes of expression through an assignment like Essay 4.  Too often, instructors in our field use music only to teach students to critically analyze the work of others or as a prompt for print writing about popular culture (see the work of Dethier, Fowler, Kroeger, Lane, and Zaluda for examples of the use of music in this way).  While music can indeed be used in these ways—to help students connect personally to material, to develop in them a critical awareness of culture, or to invite students in—assignments that do not ask students to compose using music are still overlooking the rhetorical capabilities that music brings when highlighted as a part of a new 21st century definition of composition.  This definition demands that students not only consume and write in print about music, but create their own texts using music along with other modes of expression, as well.  Once students are composing using music and sound along with other modes of expression, then, they also need to be instructed in how to critically discuss, analyze, and evaluate what constitutes the effective use of music in their own and others’ work. 

            The definition of the “effective use” of different modes of expression like sound and music is unexplored territory for most Composition instructors and students.  Instructors must evaluate the multimodal work students produce in classrooms by some definition of effectiveness, and this evaluation determines the degree of students’ success or failure in the course to a certain degree.  In an attempt to demystify this evaluation process and help define what effective use of different modes of expression truly means, I required Kaitlyn and her classmates to each construct an individualized rubric that I used to assign grades.  Students drafted these rubrics in groups during class, and I offered feedback and suggestions for ways to revise and improve the rubrics as the students worked.  All of the rubrics that the students generated centered on the ways different aspects of the composition forwarded the argument and persuaded the audience.  In teaching this assignment in subsequent terms, I also realized that a mention of different modes of expression in the rubrics would be useful, so I encouraged students to make mention of images, audio, and music, to start.  One former student includes “effective audio” on his rubric as one of eight categories for assessment, defining this term as sound that is “relevant and helps convey and strengthen the central argument.”  This link between effective use of sound and the composition’s central argument runs throughout other students’ rubrics, as well.  One student states that in order to receive an A, “the selection of the sound and images must fit the argument,” and another student’s A criteria include the qualification that “if sound is used it aligns with text and image and the message.”  Clearly, as my students realized, effective use of sound in multimodal composition forwards the main argument of the work. 

            While this link between effective audio and argument was helpful for me and my students as we began to think about the value and purpose of sound and music in compositions, as I actually graded my students’ work, I realized that their rubrics failed to give specific, clear guidelines for how to evaluate if the sound or music aligned with or strengthened the message of the piece as a whole.  One way to evaluate how music functions to further argument is revealed by considering again Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric itself, in which he details three modes of persuasion, or appeals: the appeal to the character of the speaker (ethos), the appeal to emotion as hearers are disposed in some way (pathos), and the appeal to logic as an argument shows or seems to show something (logos) (37).  Aristotle argues that since persuasion comes about “through these [three means], it is clear that to grasp an understanding of them is the function of one who can form syllogisms and be observant about characters and virtues and, third, about emotions” (39).    Thus for Aristotle, a skillful rhetor sees the available means of persuasion and puts them into practice through forming logical arguments (syllogisms), crafting character, and influencing the emotions of an audience.  Music’s rhetorical power lies in the ways it powerfully uses and extends all three of Aristotle’s means of persuasion: it appeals to pathos and evokes emotion in an audience, it creates ethos through crafting and conveying character, and it argues logically by carrying and punctuating argument and extending this logic through association, repetition, and mixing.  Taking this into account, highly effective use of music in multimodal composition environments is a use that weighs all three of these rhetorical appeals and employs some or all of them to persuade an audience of an argument.

Film is one discipline which has explored the rhetorical use of music in some depth; thus I call upon work done in and around film studies to explore specifically how music can employ each of Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals.  While student-authored multimodal compositions and full length feature films differ in many ways, both can and do use music rhetorically to forward argument.  Students can learn much from looking at key scenes and specific rhetorical uses of music in a range of films; thus, I offer film analysis as a practical pedagogical activity that can be used in Composition classrooms to recognize and highlight the rhetorical functions of music.


Pathos: Touching the Audience through Emotional Response    

            Aristotle claims that “[there is persuasion] through the hearers when they are led to feel emotion” (38), and perhaps the most obvious rhetorical function of music is this ability to appeal to pathos: to evoke, intensify, and coordinate the emotions of listeners.  Much more than speech and other sound effects, music can trigger or intensify emotional response through its use of pitch, which can convey emotions and moods like excitement, calm, romance, and danger (Levitin 26).  Music combines pitches in ways that trigger these emotions, and much of how we read and react to musical pitches is learned culturally.  Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin claims that throughout a human lifetime, “our brains learn a kind of musical grammar that is specific to the music of our culture, just as we learn to speak the language of our culture” (108).  This learned musical grammar determines the associations we make when we hear music and in turn the emotions evoked by a particular tune or song.  Lifetimes of exposure to musical patterns, scales, and lyrics lead to culturally learned reactions, which in Western music, for example, include associations such as major scales with happiness or triumph and minor scales with sadness and defeat (Levitin 38). 

            Composers can use these triggered emotional responses to evoke a sense of emotional atmosphere or mood in a composition through music.  Levitin claims that atmosphere is also often conveyed in Western music through specific choices about or manipulation of timbre, the tonal color produced from an instrument’s vibrations that distinguishes one instrument from another (16, 52).  The choice to use musical instruments of contrasting timbre or different combinations of instruments can determine what kind of emotional mood or atmosphere is experienced by a listener.  For example, a piccolo’s high-pitched, shrill timbre can convey a mood of happiness or frivolity, while a tuba’s low, droning timbre can convey a more solemn, serious feel (Levitin 28).  Mood can also be conveyed to a listener through associations of music and memory.  The human brain often creates memory links between notes and the context in which they are heard.  Thus for many listeners, when a certain type of music is heard, their brain will associate that music with a specific place, time, or set of events (Levitin 39).  Music’s pitch, cultural associations, differences in timbre, and links to audience memory all present intricate and complex ways in which music can persuade through a pathetic appeal.   

            Clearly, when composing multimodally, students in the Composition classroom must become aware of how their choice of music appeals emotionally to an audience, and this is not a simple task.  Kaitlyn reveals the complexity of this task as she talks about the composing decisions she made surrounding the music in her video, calling upon an emotional appeal through her use of the Olympic Fanfare in combination with images at the close of her composition.  All of our students can and should learn to consider, analyze, and discuss a song’s use of pitch, the cultural associations of a chosen piece of music, its use of different instruments with differing timbres, and its associations with memory or events.   

Ethos: Appealing to and Creating a Sense of Character

            Music is emotional—this is often readily apparent, and many students will be quick to recognize the ways that music employs a pathetic appeal.  But just as music elicits emotional responses in an audience, it also has the power to appeal to and create ethos.  Aristotle claims that the ethical appeal works “through character whenever the speech is spoken in such as way as to make the speaker worthy of credence” (38).  He links persuasion to the character conveyed by the words of a speaker, and multimodal 21st century texts also have this ability to convey character and credence through not just words, but through different modes of expression like music.  Halbritter explores how music summons an ethos for making meaning within film by presenting to the audience not only the melodies, harmonies, instrumentation, lyrics, and style of a song, but also through the ways the audience experiences that song as a cultural artifact that refers to historic context and the audience’s prior experiences (“Musical Rhetoric” 322).  Thus a song creates an ethos in film when not only the characters in the scene identify with a song’s symbolic reference, but also when the audience identifies with the song in certain cultural and personal ways (Halbritter “Musical Rhetoric” 322).  Through crafting ethos in this way, a song can be the key rhetorical element in a film scene. 

Halbritter gives a detailed example of the power of music to craft ethos, offering an in-depth analysis of the Rolling Stones’ song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in the opening scene of Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 movie The Big Chill.  The song “summons an ethos for making meaning within the film” through its cultural associations and functions as the film’s central thesis (“Musical Rhetoric” 322), exposing the unique ways “that music can work rhetorically when words alone fail” (“Musical Rhetoric” 327).  Similarly, Kaitlyn’s use of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” in the opening seconds of her video also summons an ethos for making meaning within her composition.  The song reminds viewers of its original context in the film Rocky III, which centers around the sports world of boxing and one boxer’s tenacity and struggle to survive.  The lyrics of the song speak of this will and struggle, a point that is made more explicit by the song’s driving beat and bass line, which, as Kaitlyn suggests, like many female athletes, never gives up, stops, or tires until it achieves its goal.  “Eye of the Tiger” is also associated with many other sports-related contexts as it has been replayed in professional sports arenas, high school gyms, and workout playlists across the globe, holding a position as one of the top most positive and motivational songs of all time.  These contexts, cultural associations, lyrics, and beats all work together to craft a credible ethos for Kaitlyn’s composition which links to the overall argument of equality and respect for all athletes, both male and female. 

Logos: Carrying and Extending a 21st Century Logic

Music also has the ability to persuade logically, what Aristotle defines as “persuasion that occurs through the arguments [logoi] when we show the truth or the apparent truth from whatever is persuasive in each case” (39).  Contemporary new media composition scholars such as Stuart Selber and Kathleen Welch also look beyond Aristotle’s definition of logos within electronic composition environments.  Selber urges us to redefine rhetoric “at the nexus of literacy and technology” (138), and Welch enacts such a redefinition, arguing for what she labels “Next Rhetoric” or “Electric Rhetoric” that seeks to extend beyond the “relentless logic” of Aristotle and Plato (68), and instead turns toward a Sophistic, Isocratic rhetoric that embraces qualities such as association, belief in “right” action, inner speech, and self deliberation (Welch 32, 46).  This postmodern logos signifies a “new merger of the written and the oral, both now newly empowered and reconstructed by electricity and both dependent on print literacy” (Welch 104).  Thus music enacts an appeal to logos in both old and new ways: it can argue a thesis as it has been traditionally employed in English Composition, yes, but it also argues through what Welch labels a new Sophistic performance, “postmodern in its dispensing with unity (that buzzword of Aristotelian formalism), in its repetitive constructions, and in its commitment to mixing and fragmenting…” (108). 

Traditionally, instructors and students have discussed and employed logical persuasion in print through the concept of stating and warranting a thesis.  Music, too, has the ability to argue a thesis in this way.  Halbritter draws from Composition scholars Erika Lindemann, Andrea Lunsford, and John Ruszkiewicz to explore the traditional meaning of thesis: a message, a sentence that succinctly states a main point, a promise, a claim (“Musical Rhetoric” 322-323).  Thus a thesis forwarded by music, such as Kasdan’s in The Big Chill or Kaitlyn’s in “Gender Inequality in Sports,” can argue a claim through lyrics, symbolic screening and filtering, providing intertextual continuity, and through use of irony (Halbritter “Musical Rhetoric” 323-327). 

Additionally, music can also argue logically through what Welch labels oralist, postmodern techniques such as association, repetition, and mixing.  Music creates associations and continuity in a film, linking one part to another when it is played over spatially discontinuous images or shots (Sonnenschein 155).  Michel Chion calls this function unification: the ability of sound to unify or bind the flow of disparate images in a film (Chion 47).  Music also adds what David Sonnenschein labels narrative unity to a film or video by employing repetition (155), what Chion labels punctuation, where music punctuates scenes to emphasize a word, scan a dialogue, or close a scene, for example (49).  This unity differs from the formalist, Aristotelian buzzword that Welch speaks against, but is a unity created through associations between what once were disparate elements.  One commonly used form of music as repetitive punctuation is the principle of the leitmotif, where main characters or key thematic ideas are assigned a musical theme and that theme is repeated throughout the film (Chion 51).  Music also binds various aspects of a video or film together, in essence mixing and remixing the elements to make something new.  Chion illustrates this point when he describes the added value of sound and music, an “expressive and informative value with which a sound enriches a given image” (Chion 5).  This added value works reciprocally, with sound altering perception of image and image altering perception of sound as they work together to present the audience with a unified message (Chion 21).  Kaitlyn takes advantage of this kind of added value of music as she juxtaposes Kanye West’s abrasive lyrics with images of scantily clad female athletes, using the combination of lyrics, song, and image to make a point.  Logical functions of music such as association, repetition, and mixing illustrate a new, 21st century postmodern logos which is indeed a merger of written and oral techniques. 

            What is clear from the work of the Music, Film, and Media scholars above is that English Composition needs to pay attention to the rhetoric of music.  Scholars in the field like Halbritter have only just begun to explore the diverse ways music appeals to emotion, creates ethos, argues a thesis, and extends logic into electronic contexts, and we need more research about, more analysis of, and more experimentation with the rhetoric of music in our classrooms.  Instructors and teachers, as well, need to validate music as a powerful means of persuasion and to teach their students to recognize and utilize this potential in their compositions.    

Using Film Analysis in the Classroom to Highlight the Rhetorical Appeals of Music

One practical and accessible activity that instructors can use to encourage students to become more aware of the ways music appeals to pathos, ethos, and logos is through analysis of film.  Having students analyze the use of music in film can also become a training ground for future discussions of music used in their own and classmates’ texts.  Film scenes from popular culture provide interesting material for this kind of film analysis, as students are familiar with many pop culture films but have not analyzed the use of music in specific scenes in depth.  One scene that would work well to highlight the use of a pathetic appeal is the “I’m Flying” scene from James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic.  In the scene, an instrumental version of the song “My Heart Will Go On” plays as the actors admire the view from the ship’s bow.  The music serves to carry and intensify the romantic momentum of the scene and to punctuate and emphasize the feelings of freedom, love, and excitement that the characters in the scene feel.  Another scene that would work well to emphasize appeals to logos and ethos is the “Imperial March on the Temple” scene from George Lucas’s 2005 Star Wars: Return of the Sith.  In this scene, Anakin Skywalker, newly named as Darth Vader, leads a group of storm troopers into a temple as the widely recognized “Imperial March” song plays.  The scene uses camera angles, melody, and leitmotif to convey an ethos for the scene, link the scene to the audience’s prior knowledge, and transmit the message that the person who was once Anakin Skywalker has now become dehumanized and evil.

In a lesson that uses either of these two film scenes, instructors could play the chosen scene for students and ask them to make note of how the scene presents its message and how different elements of the scene appeal to pathos, ethos, logos, or more than one of these appeals.  After viewing, a discussion could follow where students call attention to the images, the dialogue, and the music used in the scene and the ways each element persuades through emotional, ethical, or logical means.  Students could then watch the scene a second time and be asked to pay special attention to the music, discussing again afterwards the rhetoric of the music and if and how the music appeals to emotion, logic, or ethos.  Other scenes from popular culture films that would work well for a rhetorical analysis of music include the “Captain Rising” scene from Disney’s 2008 Wall-E or the “Elephant Love-Medley” scene from Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge.  Using multiple scenes for this activity could highlight diverse ways that music employs the three appeals: through lyrics, through notes, through instrument timbre, through tapping in to the audience’s prior cultural and personal associations, or through having characters in the scene experience or not experience the music along with the film’s audience, for example. 

Chion describes two methods of film observation that could also be incorporated into film analysis activities in a Composition classroom.  The first activity Chion calls masking, where participants screen a sequence from a film, video, or composition several times, watching the sound and images together, then masking the image, then cutting out the sound (188-9).  This activity allows the audience to observe how sound and image work as separate and combined entities to persuade, and viewers can analyze the added value of sound and image on each other.  The second activity Chion recommends is forced marriage, where a sequence from a film or video is shown several times with the original sound cut out and accompanied by diverse musical pieces played over the images.  Forced marriage will create synchronization and juxtapositions which are moving, comical, and surprising, and illustrate the phenomena of added value and sound-image association (Chion 188-9).

Both masking and forced marriage could be used and adapted for the Composition classroom to encourage students to see how the sound and music they employ adds value to other modes of expression like image and text, and in doing so, becomes more emotionally, ethically, or logically persuasive.  For example, an instructor could design a lesson where forced marriage is used with the closing “Freedom” scene from Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart.  The scene could be played multiple times for the class with several types of music of differing character, such as a Beethoven classical symphony, an Elvis rock song, or an Enya alternative pop song.  Students could take notes on the ways each type of music adds to, takes away from, or changes the appeals the scene makes to emotion, ethos, and logic, and what meaningful juxtapositions and synchronizations, if any, occur when each song is played with the images and dialogue of the scene.  The original music from the scene could be played last, and students could analyze and discuss what juxtapositions and persuasive appeals the original music uses and why they are or are not effective.  Full-class versions of activities like forced marriage could reveal to students the ways music appeals to pathos, ethos, and logos and train them in how to critique and analyze their own and others’ use of music in the future.  In addition, both masking and forced marriage could be performed in the context of full-class workshop with real student texts, where one student asks the class to consider the added value and rhetorical functions of music in a draft of his or her composition.   

       A focus on appeals to pathos, ethos, and logos through these film analysis activities offers one concrete way to begin to help students recognize, define, and discuss what effective use of music looks like in multimodal composition environments.  As Kaitlyn’s work reveals, truly effective music in multimodal composition often appeals to emotion, yes, but in addition performs the complex rhetorical work of creating an ethos for the composition as a whole and logically carrying or supporting the argument.  Effective music employs not just one of Aristotle’s means of persuasion, but often uses all three in multiple and various ways to forward an argument. 

Overall, the assignment for Essay 4 and Kaitlyn’s video composition in particular reveal that composing with sound and music is and must continue to be a key piece of what we do in today’s writing classrooms.  To this end, I believe it is of utmost importance for Composition to reorient and redefine itself for the 21st century and for Composition instructors like me to develop specific 21st century pedagogies that truly open up sound, music, and all available means of persuasion to students, giving them a specific vocabulary for discussing and evaluating the rhetorical effectiveness of those means.  Burke reminds me that all terminologies point us in a certain direction; thus, I know that today’s composition must be redefined by multiplicity, participation, and convergence, and it must highlight and celebrate one mode of expression that has been long overlooked: music.  Music is a powerful and accessible rhetorical tool for persuasion that English Composition has ignored for too long, able to appeal to pathos, ethos, and logos in unique, diverse, and powerful ways.  Music taps into the emotions of those who hear it, and it touches bodies.  Music creates ethos, it carries a message in ways just as striking as a message delivered through written words, and it converges and mixes with image and with text to become something new, something even more powerful.  The film analysis activities above offer a starting point—an exploratory way in which we can begin to encourage students to compose competently with sound and music along with other modes of expression and to evaluate their own and their classmates’ use of music.  Because for Kaitlyn, for instructors like me, and for all our students, writing isn’t just print writing anymore.  It’s musical rhetoric.  It’s media and technologies.  It’s gesture, image, movement, and sound.  It’s design, materiality, remix, and community.  It’s argument.  It’s persuasion.  It’s composition

Works Cited

Aristotle.  On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse.  Trans. George A. Kennedy.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.  Print. 

Burke, Kenneth.  Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.  Print. 

Chion, Michel, and Claudia Gorbman. Audio-vision: Sound On Screen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.  Print. 

Comstock, Michelle and Mary E. Hocks.  “Voice in the Cultural Soundscape: Sonic Literacy in Composition Studies.”  Computers and Composition Online. (2006): n. pag.  Web.  30 November 2009.

Dethier, Brock.  From Dylan to Donne: Bridging English and Music.  Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2003.  Print. 

Fowler, Shelli B.  “Tracy Chapman in the Writing Classroom: Challenging Culturally Sanctioned Assumptions.”  In Miss Grundy Doesn’t Teach Here Anymore.  Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1997.  113-120. Print. 

Halbritter, Bump.  “Musical Rhetoric in Integrated-Media Composition.”  Computers and Composition 23 (2006): 317–334.  Print. 

---.  “Sound Arguments: Aural Rhetoric in Multimedia Composition.”  Diss.  University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2004.  Print.   

Jenkins, Henry.  Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.  New York: New York University Press, 2006.  Print. 

Kroeger, Fred.  “A Freshman Paper Based on the Words of Popular Songs.”  College Composition and Communication 19.5 (Dec. 1968): 337-340.  Print. 

Lane, Rich.  “Music Videos in the Composition Classroom: Location, Genre, and Intertextuality.”  In Miss Grundy Doesn’t Teach Here Anymore.  Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1997.  103-112. Print. 

Levitin, Daniel J.  This is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession.  New York: Penguin Group, 2007.  Print. 

McKee, Heidi.  “Sound Matters: Notes toward the Analysis and Design of Sound in Multimodal Webtexts.”  Computers and Composition 23 (2006): 335–354.  Print. 

Rice, Jeff.  “The Making of Ka-Knowledge: Digital Aurality.”  Computers and Composition 23 (2006): 266–279.  Print. 

Rickert, Thomas, and Michael Salvo.  “The distributed Gesamptkunstwerk: Sound,

Worlding, and New Media Culture.”  Computers and Composition 23 (2006): 296–316.  Print.

Selber, Stuart A. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.  Print. 

Selfe, Cynthia L.  “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.”  College Composition and Communication 60.4 (2009): 616-645.  Print.

Shankar, Tara Rosenberger.  “Speaking on the Record: A Theory of Composition.”  Computers and Composition 23 (2006): 374–393.  Print. 

Sonnenschein, David. Sound Design: the Expressive Power of Music, Voice, and Sound Effects in Cinema. Seattle, WA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2001.  Print.

Welch, Kathleen E.  Electric Rhetoric: Classical Rhetoric, Oralism, and a New Literacy.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.  Print. 

Yancey, Kathleen Blake.  “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key.”  College Composition and Communication 56.2 (Dec., 2004): 297-328.  Print. 

Zaluda, Scott.  “Sophisticated Essay: Billie Holiday and the Generation of Form and Idea.”  College Composition and Communication 42.4 (Dec. 1991): 470-476.  Print. 

[1] To view Kaitlyn’s video in its entirety, please visit

[2] I am indebted to Bump Halbritter for the use of this term, which he develops in his article “Musical Rhetoric in Integrated-Media Composition.” 




Transcript for “Writing with Sound: The Rhetoric of Music”

Video by Crystal VanKooten

Video / Song:  “Benchum Live 2005” video by Jeff Mission


When students in the Composition classroom write with new media, they use more than the just printed word to compose.  They use still and moving images, fonts, colors, arrangement, sound, voice-overs, music, and combinations of all of these to compose.

Recently, Rhetoric and Composition as a field has begun to turn its ears toward a greater emphasis on sound and music, calling instructors, students, composers, and researchers to pay more attention to the ways that sound can construct, manipulate, and communicate the world. 

Song:  I Wonder if God was Sleeping (Transcendence Edit) by Scott Altham


This video series explores one way that students write with sound: composing video that uses ready-made music for rhetorical ends.


I’m Kaitlyn Patterson. I’m a sophomore at the University of Michigan. I’m majoring in movement science in the school of kinesiology.


Kaitlyn was a student in the course Introduction to College Writing at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2009.  For the final assignment in the course, Kaitlyn composed a digital video entitled “Gender Inequality in Sports.”  In the video, Kaitlyn uses combinations of the written word, still and moving images, and music to forward her argument. Listen as Kaitlyn describes the decisions she made about what music to use in the video, and how to use this music rhetorically to argue her point.


Well, when you write a traditional essay, then you write what you want to say.  But when you’re doing a video, then you have to think about what you want to say and then think about another way to show what you want to say—which can be just as powerful. I opened it with “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, which is… I wanted it upbeat but without lyrics for the first introduction part.

Song: “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor


And then, it goes into inspirational lyrics, and I thought that the will to survive theme was appropriate for the plight of female athletes.

Song: “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor

“…They stack the odds, still we take to the street

For the kill with the skill to survive.

It’s the eye of the tiger, it's the thrill of the fight

Rising up …”


After that, it transitioned into “Stronger” by Kanye West, when that was the section where it was focusing on the images of male athletes in the media. And I thought that was fitting because the whole harder, better, faster, stronger theme that pretty much reflected exactly what I was trying to say about the male athletes in sports.

Song: “Stronger” by Kanye West

 “…Man I’ve been waiting all night now.

That’s how long I’ve been on ya…”


And then it transitioned into “Take a Bow” by Rihanna, which was a total contrast to that one. I wanted the music to be as transitions too. So each section of each song is kind of like a paragraph or an idea in a traditional piece, or a traditional written piece. And so I definitely used that as an organizational tool too. And I thought it was fitting and ironic with the “standing ovation” and how female or how athletes in general sometimes don’t realize that they’re role models, but their influence is profound.

Song: “Take a Bow” by Rihanna

 “… How ‘bout a round of a applause, yeah,

standing ovation, whoa, yeah.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”


And then finally the conclusion was the Olympic fanfare, and I just thought that would play to the emotions of the audience.  And the Olympic fanfare is familiar to most everybody.  And just a kind of a conclusion of how powerful sports really are and the effect they have on people.

Song: “Olympic Fanfare” by John Williams


In a final comment, Kaitlyn talks about the way the images, text, and music work together in her video. 


I definitely wanted the images to dominate and ‘cause that was, I thought, the best way to capture my argument.  And the words were more of transitional tools to keep the audience up to speed with what was going on so it would make sense. And the music was more for emotional effect and to just make everything more powerful.

Song: “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor


Kaitlyn’s chosen music does “make everything more powerful,” but as the whole of her narrative illustrates, this power is not limited only to emotion. 

Her chosen music provides a hook and serves as an upbeat, interesting introduction.

Lyrically, the music highlights themes and brings pieces of evidence that are central to her argument.

Song: “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor

“Went the distance now I’m back on my feet. 

Just a man and his will to survive…”

Song: “Stronger” by Kanye West

“Man I’ve been waitin’ all night now.

That’s how long I’ve been on ya”


The music provides contrast and serves as a transitional and an organizational tool.

Song: “Stronger” by Kanye West

“Let’s get lost tonight. 

You could be my black Kate Moss tonight…”


Lyrics, along with image and text, drive the argument home and point out irony.

Song: “Stronger” by Kanye West

“Damn they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. 

I ask, because I’m that sure. 

Do anybody make real *** anymore? 

Bow in the presence of greatness….”


Music organizes, it emphasizes, it argues. 

Song: “Olympic Fanfare” by John Williams


The music plays to emotions and brings with it familiar cultural themes and associations.

And in the end, the music brings the argument to a conclusion.

As Kaitlyn’s work reveals, taking full advantage of the rhetoric of music is one powerful way to write with sound.

Song: I Wonder if God was Sleeping (Transcendence Edit) by Scott Altham

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