Kenneth Burke and the Piano

Public intellectual and rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke is well known in contemporary rhetorical circles for his ideas of dramatism and identification, but scholars are less familiar with Burke's interest in music. Many recent historical Burkean scholars have been recreating the many real parlors Burke actually frequented during his long life: Jack Selzer imagines Burke debating modernism in a parlor set in Greenwich Village from 1915-1931; Selzer and Ann George imagine Burke in a parlor debating the ends and means of social change and, especially the role of the artist with self-described aesthetes, leftists, Southern Agrarians, Chicago school intellectuals, and pragmatists; David Tell imagines Burke in a parlor clarifying the relationship between rhetoric and epistemology with John Crowe Ransom, the editor of the Kenyon Review; and Debra Hawhee imagines Burke in a parlor developing the rhetorical theories of efficiency and piety in response to his work as a drug research at the Bureau of Social Hygiene.

My project imagines another group of parlors that Burke frequented throughout his life: the musical parlors. These parlors vary based on historical chronology and the type of contribution Burke added to the cultural conversation, but all parlors have music as the central subject matter. At times, Burke used the English language to enter the discussion about music as a symbol system, and on other occasions, he played and wrote music as part of his contribution. In recreating this history of Burke’s interests and contributions to music, this study provides insight into Burke’s published theoretical works.

My examination of the Burkean music parlors reveals two major new areas of investigation for Kenneth Burke studies. First, this study aims to include Burke’s multimodal and musical compositions as an important layer within his theoretical corpus. These musical pieces reveal Burke as a musician working rhetorically within an aural symbol system to persuade musical audiences, and these musical principles clearly influenced the rhetorical principles put forth in his major theoretical works. Second, this study uses contemporary multimodal theorists to more fully understand and frame Burke’s rhetorical theory as a substantial contribution to the field of multimodal rhetoric.

Project History

"Kenneth Burke and the Problem of Sonic Identification." Rhetoric Review 36.3 (2017): 232-43. [download]

“Piano and Pen: Music as Kenneth Burke’s Secular Conversion.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 41.5 (2011): 439-54. [download]

“Aural Rhetoric in Kenneth Burke’s Musical Compositions” Rhetoric Society of America Conference. Philadelphia, PA. May 2012.

“Yes We Can, Can, Can: Kenneth Burke’s Aural Rhetoric” The Eighth Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society. Clemson, SC. May 2011.

“Meet Kenneth Burke, Multimodal Composer” Conference on College Composition and Communication. Atlanta, GA. April 2011. reviewed in Kairos

"Language, Image, Music, Burke." April 2011.

“Kenneth Burke: Music as Secular Conversion” Rhetoric Society of America Conference. Minneapolis, MN. May 2010.

“Kenneth Burke: “Series” and “Clusters” of Musical Form” TCU/UNT Symposium on Kenneth Burke. Fort Worth, TX. April 2010.