Musical Listening Resounding: Sonic Rhetorics in the Technical and Professional Writing Classroom

By: David Measel

Musical Listening 

“Musical Listening” is a pedagogy that applies the theory of musical expectation to patterns in text. It helps students to analyze media and consider their own reading and composition choices. As a pedagogy, it puts course curriculum in the context of a discussion about pattern recognition (Measel, “Musical Listening”). Although it includes exercises in listening for musicality, it is not to be equated with the same phrase as it is used to refer to the act of listening to music (Rice 102). I have a history of teaching with Musical Listening primarily in Rhetoric and Composition, and herein I describe how we might apply this pedagogy to Technical and Professional Communication (TPC). Doing so will help teachers and students to understand the why and how of composition patterns and our responses to TPC media. My focus herein is on affective patterns (patterns of emotional response) encountered in silent reading (reading that takes place quietly, as opposed to speaking the language aloud). I also hope to provide teachers with a way to connect sonic rhetorics with technical and professional writing. For more on the field of sonic rhetoric, its key concepts and texts, visit the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative. 

Musical Listening is inspired by the pedagogy of Steven B. Katz, who theorizes and discusses classroom practices in composition pedagogy in his book The Epistemic Music of Rhetoric with exercises that involve listening and reading aloud. He borrows Leonard Meyer’s “Principles of Pattern Perception,” part of his theory of musical expectation in his own pedagogical theory and practice (Meyer 83, Katz 186-95). Musical Listening incorporates David Huron’s work, which expands on Meyer’s theory of musical expectation and applies empirical evidence to prove the experience of and response to expectation (Sweet Anticipation). It operates on the principle that music and language both feature logical arrangement (Langer 31). As a rhetorical tool, the theory of musical expectation allows us to analyze that experience, which is built of “tension and release” patterns (Langer 27). Similar to the endeavors of Katz and myself, the literary critic and rhetorician, as well as poet and musician, Kenneth Burke observes musicality in texts as well and calls these patterns of response to rhythms the “arousing and fulfilling of expectations” (Counter-Statement 144). When expectations are aroused, we experience physical tension as we predict what will happen next, and we are emotionally affected when expectations are fulfilled or denied. 

Musical Listening utilizes the theory that rhythms in prose and speech are musical, and based upon them we make predictions that lead to affective patterns of tension and release. The theory of musical expectation states that prediction of upcoming musical stimuli generates physical and psychological expectation and subsequent fulfillment or denial of those predictions, which leads to positive and negative emotions (Huron 12-13). Expectation is influenced to some degree by our biology (Huron vii, 4; see also Huron, “Affect Induction through Musical Sounds: An Ethological Perspective,” 2015). Meyer and Huron agree that expectation is also influenced by culture (Huron vii, 4; Meyer 21-22). Finally, expectation is shaped by our listening experiences as well (Huron 219; Meyer 73). For more on musicality in prose and specifically technical writing, see Morris Croll’s Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm

Musical Listening encourages students to identify musical elements in and across texts (such as patterns in volume and tone) and analyze them with the basic principles of expectation theory. For more on David Huron’s development of musical expectation theory, see Huron’s 2015 article “Affect Induction through Musical Sounds: An Ethological Perspective.” In a larger context, Burke observes rhythms in our reading selection, interpretation, composition, and attitudes (The War of Words 176-182). I address these in discussions of Musical Listening as well (see “Activity 1” and “Signficance”), encouraging students to see themselves as a filter for attitudes in a complex sea of media and contrasting forces. 

Musical Listening applies to Technical and Professional Communication due to how we experience rhythms in text. We see musicality via rhythms in text visually and understand there is sound implied in the written word, but we can experience that sound internally through silent reading, also known as subvocalization” (“Subvocalization”). Most of us hear an “IRV” (inner reading voice, Vilhauer 38) when we read. A study by Ruvanee Vilhauer indicates that over 80% of the respondents reported hearing an IRV when they read (38). Some readers hear their own voices, while others hear the voices of others such as loved ones (41). Our students hear IRV’s as well. Some individuals may not notice IRV’s until after the question is posed to them (39). While not all individuals hear IRVs or audible thinking, this approach is relevant to all learners because the patterns will explore in “Activity 1: Sonic Analysis” are also visual and spatial. Respectively, Huron’s theory has evolved into a “more general theory of expectation” that applies to all of our interactions with stimuli, so the observations and activities herein are relevant to all of our students and their individual learning orientations. The Sonic Analysis, described below, focuses on the experience of reading a memo. 


Application of Musical Listening to the teaching of Technical and Professional Communication allows for the analysis of media for appeals to rhythm. Simpler activities include analysis and discussion of a sample document within the context of the theory of expectation described above. More complex activities ask the writer (student) how to compose in a professional rhetorical situation. Both the Sonic Analysis and Sonic Remix activities, described below, demonstrate comprehension of genre conventions and are accompanied by a reflection that further demonstrates this understanding as well as describes the composition process. In both in-class presentations and reflections students can discuss their rhetorical choices, answer questions, and compare their reading experiences to those of their peers. We begin exploring students’ sonic reading experiences in Activity 1, the Sonic Analysis. 

Activity 1. Sonic Analysis 

Activity 1 is an in-class discussion that features the analysis of a technical document such as a memo (I highly recommend using a brief document like a memo, resume, or business letter for this activity because the analysis can get much more complex with longer documents) with the class as a whole or in groups of 3-4. In both cases students are asked to analyze the arrangement of the memo through the lens of Musical Listening. In groups, one student leads the discussion; when we practice this activity together as an entire class, I run the discussion. Together, we imagine that we are employees of a company, “Technical Writing Solutions,” receiving weekly memos (see Figure 1). We discuss how receiving and reading these memos weekly and absorbing their content through silent reading creates expectation. We become accustomed to patterns as we absorb them over and over on a regular basis. Along with our prediction of those patterns we experience expectation (expectation and prediction are explored in further detail below under (“Activity 1: Sonic Analysis” and “Significance”). 

We discuss the patterns we see, both those particular specific to the memo genre and those recurring within the document itself. We merely observe and collect data about the document in this phase. We do not yet draw conclusions. Results will vary from student to student. However, together as a class, we might conclude that firstly, the heading and address are extremely consistent in format and language (in green: see color-coded memo, Figure 2), except for some elements of the address. Secondly, this is followed by three paragraphs averaging around 3 to 5 sentences, followed by a signature that is usually shorter and ends in a linked email (yellow). Lastly, the three longer paragraphs are divided by brief bolded headings of few words that generally run less than half-way across the page (purple); each of these sections is further divided by hierarchical spacing (no color/white). A color-coded version of the memo appears in Figure 2. 

Figure 1. Memo Example

These patterns are visual, spatial, and sonic. The students identify in discussion common and individual experiences in ‘hearing’ the memo through IRV’s in silent reading. I ask students to ‘listen’ to the memo and report the quality of sounds they hear, and the relationship between patterns in those sounds and visual patterns. Responses will vary, but commonalities will emerge, both between audio and visual patterns and between students’ auditory experiences. I observe in my experience, even when scanning, that headings and bolded language can be loud (hear Clip 1) and paragraphs can sound like chatter (Clip 2) or even static, while white space remains silent (see Figure 2).

Clip 1: Loud Headings and Bolded Language (dersuperanton)

Clip 2: Paragraph Chatter (bypayri)

Students have their own unique sonic experiences with varying sound qualities, and even different personal voice associations, and the same is true for you. Whose voice do you hear when you read silently to yourself?

Regardless of the sound quality experienced by individual students (which they are asked to consider and apply through composition of audio media in the following Sonic Remix project: see “Activity 2: Sonic Remix” below) the discussion and color-coding of this memo or any other piece of TPC media opens the door to a conversation about pattern recognition and technical communication in the context of a theory of expectation and moreover Musical Listening. Students are able to repeat the practice of color-coding with this or any other document on their own or in groups, in preparation for Activity 2. Repetition of this activity and/or a combination of Activities 1 and 2 will improve students’ skills at sonic analysis, allowing them to approach longer documents, and in general more complex examples of TPC media.

The greater discussion of Musical Listening that contextualizes Activity 1 is ongoing in my classroom. Students understand from class discussion before beginning these activities that repetition of patterns across different documents within a single genre and within the same document creates expectation. We prefer predictability and can become irritated by “violation of expectation” (Huron 26). If we compose according to existing expectation, we appreciate the result largely because our brains like the predictability of repetition (127). The same is true for readers. If we are confused by a memo due to its violation of expected patterns, or a knowledge of expectation theory allows us to reasonably attribute the negative affective response to violation of the reader’s expectation. The same is true if we get in trouble with a supervisor for composing the memo in such a way that breaks those established patterns.

We do at times, of course, enjoy getting a prediction wrong. Violation of expectation can lead to a mix of negative and positive emotions, and “surprise [one of the several kinds of experience associated with expectation] can lead to fear, laughter, frisson, or awe” (Huron vii). The relevance of Musical Listening and a theory of expectation extends far beyond music and language to potentially any situation in which we experience surprise (not just in the areas of music and reading, but also in magic and comedy (Savinova and Korovkin 1). Thus, the theory that students learn under the pedagogy of Musical Listening and the skills they adopt through sonic analysis are transferrable far beyond the TPC classroom.

Figure 2. Memo Example with Highlights

Activity 2: Sonic Remix

Activity 2 is a project that asks students to compose audio representing what they hear when they silently scan the memo. Students perform this activity in class, but ultimately it must be completed outside of class due to the sonic element. Students can complete the Sonic Remix in groups of 3-4 (retained from Activity 1) or individually. The introduction to the Sonic Remix begins with reinforcing the discussion of audio rhythms in a document through manipulation of the memo image. When we rotate our color-coded document counter-clockwise (see Figure 3) and place two copies next to each other as seen in Figure 4, we see that the document strongly resembles a sound wave (Figure 5).


Figure 3: Horizontal Memo

Figure 4: Horizontal Memo, Doubled

Figure 5: Sample Color-Coded Sound Wave (“Vector Sound Wave”)

Students can do this with any technical document and use it as the basis for a sonic remix. Students think about the document’s rhythms in terms of audio rhythms when they view and think about the document in terms of a sound file.

The Sonic Remix requires students to color-code any brief technical document (doesn’t have to be a document covered in Activity 1), individually or as a group, and adapt it to the affordances of sound according to their own rhetorical decisions. Students express through remixing with audio what they hear through IRV’s when they read the document. Their audio remix submissions reflect listening to a single document or repetition of the overall pattern that document evidences. Although we may find consistency across student remixes for this activity, significant variation may also be found in the quality of the sound, especially the tone and texture. Students will ‘hear” the text – and the overall design for that matter – in significantly different ways (Figure 5 is just one example of how a document’s ‘sound’ might be ‘coded’), and we learn about those sonic experiences by leaving them a wide-open playing field for composition. The final submission will be an audio file, alone with an optional presentation in which students defend their rhetorical choices. Clip 3 is an example Sonic Remix audio file produced by a student responding to our memo. The student’s associated reflection can be found at  “Sonic Rhetorics in Tech Comm.”

Clip 3: Individual Student Audio Remix Example


Following genre patterns without critical reflection can be problematic. As Katz explores in his article “The Ethic of Expediency,” the lack of personal thought and control over the execution of a text for the sake of expediency, such as that determined by an overseeing organization, can go beyond depersonalizing individuals to terrible results that hurt or even kill people (Katz, “The Ethic” 259-60). Students won’t always feel that this example of a weekly memo is particularly high-stakes. However, it illustrates a point relevant across rhetorical situations involving TPC media. While deviation from the patterns that a reader has come to expect doesn’t always lead to negative outcomes and can sometimes even prove beneficial, it can lead to unintended and undesirable consequences.

With Musical Listening instruction students are able to analyze hypothetical scenarios in professional contexts as well as real-world situations to understand how the shaping of TPC media can potentially lead to negative outcomes. Students use the skills they learn using Musical Listening to consider design and prose composition not only in the context of what an employer expects, but also in the context of the task at hand, greater ethical implications, and their own interest. This is to say nothing of the potential benefits that could come from deliberately violating expectation of rhythm: that subject is outside of my purview here, and I would like to hope it elsewhere in the near future.

Works Cited

bpayri. “Crowd Chattering Students University Loud.” Freesound, 13 November 2015,

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press, 1969. Print.

—. Counter-Statement. University of California Press, 1931.

—. The War of Words. Edited by Anthony Burke, Kyle Jensen, and Jack Selzer. University of California Press, 2018. Print.

dersuperanton. “Hello Scream Male Loud.” Freesound. 1 August 2018, people/dersuperanton/sounds/435851/.

Huron, David. “Affect Induction through Musical Sounds: An Ethological Perspective.” Philosophical Transactions B, vol. 370, no. 1664, 19 March 2015, pp. 1-7,

Katz, Steven B. The Epistemic Music of Rhetoric: Toward the Temporal Dimension of Affect in 

Reader Response and Writing. Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

—. “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust.” College English, vol. 54, no. 3, Mar 1992, pp. 225-75,

—. Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. MIT Press, 2006.

Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. Routledge, 1953. Print.

Measel, Michael. “Horizontal Memo.” “Sonic Rhetorics in Tech Comm,” 15 March 2023,

—. Horizontal Memo, Doubled. “Sonic Rhetorics in Tech Comm,” 15 March 2023,

—. Memo Example. “Sonic Rhetorics in Tech Comm,” 15 March 2023,

—. Memo Example with Highlights. ”Sonic Rhetorics in Tech Comm,” 15 March 2023,

—. “Musical Listening: Addressing the Rhetoric of Music in Sonic and Multimodal Composition.” Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics vol.5, no. 2, Fall 2021,

Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. University of Chicago Press, 1956.

Rice, Tom. “Listening.” Keywords in Sound, Ed. David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny, JSTOR, 2015,

Savinova, Anna and Korovkin, Sergei. “Surprise! Why Insightful Solution is Pleasurable.” Journal of Intelligence, vol. 10, no. 98, November 2022,

“Subvocalization.” Wikipedia, 8 November 2023,

“Vector Sound Wave. Colorful Sound Waves for Party, DJ, Pub, Clubs, Discos. Audio Equalizer Technology. Vector Illustration for Mobile App.” 123RF, 2023.

Vilhauer, Ruvanee. “Inner Reading Voices: An Overlooked Form of Inner Speech.” Psychosis, vol. 8, no. 1, March 2015, pp. 37-47, full.

Share articles with your friends or follow us on Twitter!
Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.