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The Trivium in Music – Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric

Part 3: Rhetoric

by John Anthony Martinez ’87

Read Part 1: Grammar and Part 2: Logic.

You can find practically anything you are interested in learning about through a quick search online; this is a good thing. Access to information should be available to anyone who wants it. But who is controlling the quality of the information being posted? Would any sort of quality control over sharing one’s opinions be interpreted as censorship? How can one trust the information being shared?

The tradition of learning grammar, logic, and rhetoric was established in ancient Greece. These subjects were later grouped together and called the trivium in the Middle Ages. “Grammar is the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; logic is the art of thinking; and rhetoric is the art of communicating thought from one mind to another; the adaptation of language to circumstance.”1 It seems appropriate to apply the trivium to how we learn, understand, and express the language of music. We have already discussed grammar and logic in my previous articles. Now let us turn our attention to rhetoric.

According to Aristotle, rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Rhetoric is used to influence beliefs, attitudes, emotions, judgement, behavior, and so forth. We see rhetoric at work everyday in branding and advertising. The appeal is to the whole person, not just the intellect alone, but also to the imagination and the feelings. There are three modes to persuasion: logos (thoughts), pathos (arousal of the emotions), and ethos (character, credibility, or competence). Style and arrangement were also considered important components in effective delivery of rhetorical arguments.

There are several parallels here: grammar relates to music as it is symbolized (theory), logic relates to music as it is known (analysis), and rhetoric relates to music as it is communicated (performance). The credibility (ethos) of the one communicating that information dramatically effects how well received that information is, the passion (pathos) with which it is delivered can inspire the listener to act, and the quality of the information being shared (logos) can be trusted because it comes from an enthusiastic, experienced, and reliable source. But we must be careful, even when listening to so called professionals.

Sophists were itinerant teachers of philosophy and rhetoric who were gifted speakers in an oral culture. They would train young statesmen and noblemen how to be persuasive and win arguments. The emphasis was not in debating and having a constructive dialogue in order to arrive at the truth, but to defeat an opponent. This was why Aristotle strongly disliked Sophists. Aristotle was a lover of truth, and sought to use rhetoric to discover it. In his opinion, one who loves the truth never loses an argument. If your opponent is able to convince you that he or she has the best evidence to support their position, you would be happy to be proven wrong because your main objective is not to win an argument, but to gain the truth.

I have adopted an Aristotelian perspective when it comes to teaching and performing. I could teach my students the latest “hot licks” so that they can quickly impress people, or intimidate their peers, but I choose not to because I love truth and I love music. I could spend my days woodshedding with the goal of blowing everyone away with a killer drum solo at the next PASIC convention – but for what? That is not why I play music. I am interested in playing the truth, which is the best notes in the best order to communicate the heart of the song. This was the way I was taught at Berklee to be the musician I am today, and it is what I try to convey to my students in my workshops, clinics, and masterclasses.

If I wanted to become a lawyer, I would have done my best to get into Harvard Law School. If I wanted to pursue medicine, I would have set my sights on Johns Hopkins University. Instead, I felt called to be a musician, so I chose Berklee, because it was and continues to be the most credible source of information and training for anyone who has a strong desire to be involved in contemporary music-making.

Martinez, an alumnus of Berklee College of Music and Oxford University, is an in-demand drummer, songwriter, producer, and Managing Partner of Rhythm Intensive™. He founded Fingerfoot Music Productions in 1999 and is a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ Grammy Awards.

Find John throughout the interwebs:

©2015 by John Anthony Martinez. All rights reserved.


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1 Comment

  1. Terry Culver

    Lovely reading.
    all wise men seek the truth..
    Music is a very multi dimensional form of communication. I find it very very interesting….unbridled forever.
    our friends abound.
    Thank You

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