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Legal Writing Reminders

Legal Writing and Music: It’s Called Composition for a Reason

Legal writing and music share many traits.

By Josh Taylor

This edition of Legal Writing Reminders is adapted from a longer working paper, “It’s Called Composition for a Reason: Music as a Pedagogical Parallel for Legal Writing.”

For this installment of the #LegalWritingReminders series, I thought we’d have some fun. Part of any discipline is finding new ways to think about what you do and reigniting the passion for that each day. Over the course of my legal writing advising and in my own practice, I’ve been intrigued with similarities in musical composition and legal writing. In fact, many of our most cherished musical composers at one point studied law.

I wanted to explore that connection, and thought those explorations might be pertinent to current practitioners. Enjoy a taste of why certain music may actually improve your legal writing!

A Brief History Lesson

Handel. Schumann. Sibelius. Stravinsky. Tchaikovsky. The list goes on, and it holds a veritable who’s who of compositional juggernauts from varying periods. Handel, while a student at the University of Halle, was said to have attended many lectures of the liberal jurist Christian Thomasius. Schumann is said to have taken up legal studies in Leipzig, in part so that he might get his due inheritance. Stravinsky enrolled at the University of St. Petersburg to study law, but gradually allowed his interest in music to take firm hold, culminating in his being barred from taking final exams. And Mozart’s father, Leopold, studied philosophy and jurisprudence in Salzburg before being expelled and famously becoming music teacher to his prodigious son, as well as an accomplished musician in his own right.

Our most cherished legally trained composers span centuries and huge stylistic chasms. However, their commonality is clear: These composers operated soundly in the realm of rules-based musical writing. They certainly pushed boundaries and made their marks, but all within a system of established structural rules.

Structural Analogies

Similarities in the structure, constraints and form of musical composition and legal writing abound on several levels.

On Structure

Composers create music through a system of hierarchical structures. First, a composer picks the type of composition, which relays to the composer what shape the piece takes. Perhaps a concerto; perhaps a symphony; perhaps an opera. Each type of composition has its own pattern, layout and road map pursuant to traditional rules meant to keep listeners engaged, expectant and ultimately satisfied with the conclusion. The type of musical composition is defined by many variants, perhaps the most important being how many sections or movements comprise the type.

The analogous legal writing structure would be what type of written work is needed: perhaps a memo; perhaps a motion; perhaps an appellate brief. As in music, the type of written work is made up of set sections. A memo, to use an example near and dear to most practitioners’ hearts, usually contains five distinct sections: Question Presented, Brief Answer, Statement of Facts, Discussion and Conclusion.

On Form

Within each type of musical composition, sections are subcategorized and follow substructures or forms. For example, a concerto’s first movement (and at least one of a symphony’s four movements) follows “sonata form,” which requires distinct substantive material: an exposition, a development and a recapitulation. Sound familiar? IRAC and its progeny provide similar structural forms for effective, and even creative, substance. Issue and Rule statements draw similarities to a musical exposition, as both introduce an idea to be explored further. Analysis and development share the same purpose of exploring that exposed idea. And the recapitulation simply puts a concluding cherry on top of the idea. Sonata form is arguably the IRAC of music.

On Constraints

Finally, within each form, rules of harmony, counterpoint, voice leading and even notation guide composers and impose limits on the substance they create. For example, one of the most fundamental harmonic rules dictates that a composer may not write “parallel fifths,” meaning that two notes sounding at the same time cannot move up or down a step together when they are a perfect fifth apart. In legal writing, grammar, style and even citation rules impose similar constraints and force the writer to stay within predetermined confines. In both mediums, the rules aid the listener or reader and are intended to make the transfer of information as pleasant as possible.

Shared Psychological Concepts

While analogous structural concepts alone can assist in certain legal writing situations, remember what the composers noted above display: Creativity and legal thinking often occupy similar mind spaces. While very little discoverable comparative research has been done on this thesis, one need only look to the psychological concepts studied in musical processes to see that those very concepts translate to legal writing. Likewise, psychology research on the activity of writing lends itself to musical application.

To write and communicate, we utilize a shared language. Music and language are often connected on a psychological level. In her 2019 book “The Psychology of Music: A Very Short Introduction,” Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis explains: “Both [language and music] combine discrete sound units into rich structures — sentences and paragraphs in the case of language, phrases and sections in the case of music.” It’s then no great leap to see how psychology relating to musical creation can translate nicely into the writing process and vice versa.

Indeed, as today’s music psychologists point out, their research borrows often from the precursory psychology of language. Hellmuth Margulis notes in her book that “[c]ontemporary work in the psychology of music owes much to the psychology of language, adopting many of its theories and methods.” Both bodies of psychological study share themes of “concerted effort and concentration, the marshalling of many intellectual resources, and the skilled negotiation of numerous constraints,” Ronald T. Kellogg said in 1994’s “The Psychology of Writing.”

If nothing else, the parallel between music and legal writing can simply serve to reinforce a need for strict structure. Of course, not all practitioners will grab hold of a musical analogy, but we are able to translate logic and structure outside of an often overwhelming legal language, certain practitioners may flourish and become reinvigorated with the writing process.

More Legal Writing Tips on Attorney at Work

“Honing Legal Writing Skills: Passive Voice and Parentheticals” by Josh Taylor

“Using Colons and Semicolons When Writing Briefs and Memos” by Josh Taylor

“Commonly Interchanged in Parlance and Commonly Confused in Writing” by Josh Taylor

“Harness the Intuitive, Persuasive Power of Analogy” by Susan Kostal

And be sure to read “Get to the Point!” by Teddy Snyder for quick tips on clear communications.

Illustration ©

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Josh Taylor Josh Taylor

Josh Taylor is a practicing litigator based in Connecticut and the head of legal content strategy at Tracers, an investigative data search software company for law firms. Previously, Josh served on the staff of The John Marshall Law School’s Writing Resource Center and as head of legal content and strategic partnerships at a nationwide legal software company.  He has spoken around the country on practice management and legal writing topics. Josh sits on the boards of directors of Beyond Legal Aid and the Chicago Fringe Opera Company. He also writes the Legal Writing Reminders series for Attorney at Work.

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