A Musical Analysis of the Speeches of Abraham Lincoln by Kreston Kent ©2005

Beginning with the basic units, the note in music and the word (or the letter, depending on usage) in texts, musical and written works share analogous structural elements, notes compounding into motives, words into phrases.  Just as phrases compound into clauses and sentences, motives and figures compound into musical

Analogous Structures in Musical and Written Works

In Music

In Texts

Note / Harmony

Letter / Word






Compound Sentences or Sentence


Paragraph / Chapter


Chapter / Book

phrases.  A musical phrase is punctuated by a cadence as a sentence ends with a period.  Half-cadences and imperfect cadences join multiple musical phrases into a single functional unit called a period, just as a comma or semicolon joins independent clauses into compound sentences or as sentences group naturally together by their construction or integral content (antecedent-consequent pairings / sequential sentences / parallel sentences).  Sentences build paragraphs as phrases and periods build sections.  Paragraphs may comprise an entire work or a chapter of a larger body, just as sections may comprise an entire piece or a movement.  These elements constitute the structure of a work and may be organized into various forms.

The speeches of Abraham Lincoln exhibit Classical musical form.  The following excerpt, from Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech of June 16, 1858, is organized as a double period composed of two three-phrase periods, this particular form of which Arnold Schoenberg called a musical “sentence,” exemplified by the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F Minor (Op. 2/I, I, I-8) (Caplin, 9). 

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."  I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.  I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.  It will become all one thing or all the other.  Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South.  (Basler)


In the analysis below, syllable counts are marked in parentheses, with cumulative figures in brackets and compounded totals in braces.  Bold, underline, and italic designations are made for analytical purposes as noted.

         Period A is composed of three sentences (phrases).  The second and third sentences expand the idea expressed in the first.  The subject motives alternate order in each sentence, creating a continuous transition from the end of each phrase to the beginning of the next, somewhat like a smooth harmonic progression.  The third sentence might be analyzed as a period in itself, consisting of three independent clauses of parallel construction, with the opening of the third clause contrasting the preceding ones.  However, the context and punctuation unite the clauses into a single idea that completes the logical progression of the preceding two sentences, justifying the analysis below:

Period A

                        Phrase 1A CLAIM:

                        “A house divided [motive A] against itself cannot stand [motive B]." (12)

                        Phrase 2A CLARIFICATION:

I believe this government cannot endure (11), permanently half  slave and half free. (9) [20]

                        Phrase 3A CLARIFICATION CONT., parallelism:

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved (12) -- I do not expect the house to fall (9)-- but I do expect it will cease to be divided (13). [34] {54}  (Basler)


         Period B consists of two sentences, the first of which is taken as the first phrase, and the second of which comprises the next two phrases, divided by the semicolon.  The first phrase establishes a dichotomy, the parts of which are expounded respectively by the following two phrases, a form of motivic expansion.  The final phrase includes an extended ending (extended cadence), emphasizing the meaning of the phrase and bringing it to a more powerful close.

Period B:

                        Phrase 1B CLAIM: It will become all one thing or all the other. (12)

                        Phrase 2B CLARIFICATION:  Either the opponents of slavery (10), will arrest the further spread of it (9) [19], and place it where the public mind shall rest (10) in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction (17) [27]; {46} [Half cadence]

                        Phrase 3B CLARIFICATION CONT.: or its advocates will push it forward (10), till it shall become alike lawful in all the States (13) [23] {69}, old as well as new (5) -- North as well as South (5) [10]. {{79}}  (Basler)



         The speech as a whole sets the excerpt in the context of a broader organization that reinforces the analysis above.  Lincoln establishes a symmetric structure in the opening of the work by his placement of key words (i.e. “slavery”) and consonants, especially ‘h’, ‘d’, ‘c’, and ‘s,’ taken from the phrase, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Other examples of Lincoln’s use of consonants include alliteration:

Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four  winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy.  (Basler)


         Throughout the speech, critical phrases exhibit consistent syllabic counts that either delineate sections (as in the analysis above) or, when presented in a continuous sequence, establish a strong sense of rhythm, as in this example, which also employs extensive alliteration:

Let any one who doubts (6), carefully contemplate (6) that now almost complete (6) legal combination (6) -- piece of machinery so to speak (9)-- compounded of the Nebraska doctrine (10), and the Dred Scott decision (7). (Basler)


and in the conclusion of the speech:

We shall not fail (4)-if we stand firm (4), we  shall not fail (4). Wise counsels may accelerate (8), or  mistakes delay it (6), but, sooner or later (6), the victory  is sure to come (8). (Basler)


            Lincoln’s speech demonstrates the efficacy of incorporating musical forms into political discourse.  Musical form takes advantage of the mind’s receptive proclivities to maximize the transmission of ideas.

Whether functional or expressive, any composition with cogent appeal is characterized by detailed, deliberate organization.  Political texts and large-scale musical works both exhibit this characteristic.  However, considerations of function and presentation distinguish the two with respect to elements such as concision, transitions, repetition, uniformity, and variation.  The outlines and structures of such compositions, more than merely giving order to the ideas expressed, have a profound impact on their meanings and implications.  In both cases, displacing a phrase or reordering sections would alter the meaning of the affected lines and the implications of the entire body.

Two primary principles govern the organization of structural elements: function and presentation.  Function, more than any other consideration, dictates form, especially in the case of political texts.  Whereas structures may be conspicuous in political discourse, form has been widely examined due to its inextricable symbiosis with function, a paramount consideration to political scientists and political theorists.  Political scholars know the different formal characteristics of covenants, compacts, declarations, philosophical works, essays, scientific studies, reviews, speeches, and other works.  The classification of a work evokes both the form and function simultaneously.  The same is true for music; minuet, dances, sonata, concerto, symphony, all evoke the form and the function: the intended setting, instrumentation, and program in which the work will be presented. Given the differences of medium and function, form will not be as directly analogous as structure between musical and political works.  Thus, before considering the particular forms in musical and political works, it is necessary to examine the different considerations facing a composer in organizing ideas.

An analysis of the considerations guiding the composition of expository sections will suffice as an illustration of what guides the composition of an entire musical or political work.   The function of an introduction is to engage the audience and establish the frame in which it receives the information related by the medium.  The transience of musical ideas necessitates frequent iteration of the introductory material to maintain the contextual frame of a work, whereas a written introduction remains at hand for the reader to revisit at his discretion. Music and speeches necessarily follow a linear progressions, given the limits of temporal exposition and the limitations of retention by the audience: time inevitably carries the listener away from the original idea.  The permanence of the written word allows the author to establish hierarchical layers without constantly reminding the reader of the opening material.  This difference is obscured in short works, given the proximity of the whole to the beginning.  A composition might consist of an A section, B section, and then A or A’ (a variation of A), followed by a conclusion.  In an extended linguistic work, a document may develop an extended middle section without reestablishing the introductory material, whereas solid, coherent musical structures require periodic repetitions (literal or permutated) of the opening theme, as exemplified by the ubiquitous rondo form, which interposes an A or A’ section between other sections, forming an A-B-A-C-A-… structure, for example. 

Emotional appeal and repetition correlate in music and vary inversely in political documents.  Political documents that establish institutions are generally characterized by concision, appealing to logic and jurisprudence, whereas those appealing to emotion require iteration to have a deeper impact on the audience.  In music, repetition may be used to establish a working paradigm, as in serial and minimalist genres, but the more strictly repetitive the music, the more mechanical and intellectual the character.  Music with strong emotional appeal must establish a paradigm through some degree of repetition, but it often generates emotion with sweeping changes such as shifts in key and broad expansions of motives or by broadening or narrowing the orchestration, harmonic richness, or range.  Appeals to reason establish political (institutions of government) or musical (tonality or consonance and dissonance) paradigms, whereas appeals to emotion incite action.



Basler, Roy P. Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001.

Caplin, William E.  Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

A Musical Analysis of the Speeches of Abraham Lincoln by Kreston Kent ©2005