Musically Speaking

Comparisons between music and public speaking usually start and finish with the voice. The voice is a 'musical instrument' and therefore much can be made of comparisons in terms of pace, pitch, power and pause.

However, the comparison can go deeper, as we consider speech structure in relation to musical structure.

If we look back to the simple voice and dance structures in the baroque period, we see 2 basic forms, Binary (2 part) and Ternary (3 part). A binary structure is a piece of music in 2 sections, A and B. It is usually a dance movement and so the mood and feeling of the music remain the same throughout. In relation to speech structure, it can be seen in terms of one theme, introduced, explored and then coming back to the opening theme once more.

For instance, a speech on 'my mother's cooking' may start with memories of the family dinner, then explore all the exotic foods I have eaten from around the world, and then conclude that nothing quite beats mother's cooking.

In musical binary terms, Section A takes the listener from mother's cooking out into the wide world of other food experience; Section B takes us from those experiences back to mother's cooking.

As a speech structure, it is very simple and very satisfying; it is not very profound, as all it does is 'inform' the audience about one theme or subject. This structure is not meant to challenge or confront. Like the Baroque dance movement, it is there to entertain and please the listener.

The ternary structure is a piece of music in 3 sections, A, B and then A again (notice - not C). Although basic speech structure is seen in terms of 'Beginning, Middle and End', often the most satisfying speeches end where they started, back at the beginning. The difference between this and the binary structure is that in the 'middle section' we may go further afield in our exploring. In musical terms section B was used to contrast the 2 section A's (a typical traditional musical form would be a Minuet and Trio, where the Trio section contrasts with the opening minuet, which is then repeated after the Trio).

So a simple speech about fishing could explore all the joys of peace and tranquillity experienced by the solitary, patient fisher of one's youth; section B would take you into another phase of the speakers life, - maybe when he moved to the big city and got involved in team sports like rugby or football and how they influenced his life; section A would then return to the tranquillity and love of fishing.

This is a very useful structure for comparing or contrasting two different themes; dogs and cats - explore both and then come to a conclusion that (for instance) dogs are best.

Similarly to the A,B Binary structure, there is not necessarily a great sense of development in the material of the speech; an opening theme is introduced, contrasted with the second theme and then returned to as the conclusion. For more dramatic development we need to look at Sonata Form as the model. I would not attempt to go into great depth here, but classical sonata form is broadly a fusion of both Binary and Ternary forms and is defined in 3 sections; exposition; development and recapitulation. This allows us to deal with more complex and challenging issues, where the middle section allows us to really examine a challenging or controversial set of ideas and return to them at the end with new knowledge or perspective.

For instance; the speaker introduces the 2 apparently unrelated themes of politics and picking up his young son from nursery in section A; section B 'develops these ideas, compares and contrasts them, dissects them and re-evaluates (for instance comparing Prime Ministers Question Time to a playground fight; comparing childhood school drama to more profound political struggles). Therefore when we come back to the 2 themes again, we view them in a new and enlightened way.

Another example would be to start with the rhetorical question:

'Who believes lawyers are self-interested and money-grabbing?'

If the audience agrees, then the development would explore the great personal sacrifice and dangerous work many lawyers do around the world defending peoples rights.

The speaker then returns to the question at the end: 'Who believes lawyers are self-interested and money-grabbing?' The question is the same, but our understanding of it has changed.

The parallel between musical structure and speech structure is not intended to be taken too literally. An impressionist painting cannot be compared point for point to impressionist music, however, the comparisons are useful and stimulating if we are looking for better ways to express our ideas.

This article was written by Michael Ronayne, director at the College of Public Speaking and four-time UK National Public Speaking Champion.

To discover more of Michael's top training techniques, check out his professionally accredited Train the Trainer course here