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Musically Speaking

Posted by administrator
Published on 27 July 2022

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

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

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

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

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

As a speech structure, it is simple and satisfying; it is not 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 entertains and pleases the listener.

The ternary structure is a piece of music in three sections, A, B and then A again (notice - not C). Although basic speech structure is seen in terms of 'Beginning, Middle and End', the most satisfying speeches often end where they started, back at the beginning. The difference between this and the binary structure is that we may go further afield in the 'middle section in our exploration. In musical terms, section B was used to contrast the two-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 speaker's 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. We need to look at Sonata Form as the model for more dramatic development. 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, whereas 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 two apparently unrelated themes of politics and picking up his young son from the 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 return to the two 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 people's 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.

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