Rhetorical Criticism and the Creative Process:

    Invention and Arrangement in The Guess Who’s ‘Laughing’

    Robert Toft

University of Western Ontario

    Rhetorical criticism, perhaps the oldest branch of literary criticism, has been used since the time of Aristotle to analyse, interpret, and evaluate a wide range of texts through the application of tools derived from the five main areas of rhetorical construction: invention (inventio), arrangement (dispositio), style (elocutio), memory (memoria), and delivery (pronunciatio).1 Rhetorical critics examine both texts and performances and consider the relationships between author, text, performance, and audience. In other words, the rhetorical critic studies the methods by which ideas are imparted to audiences. Scholars of music who adopt this methodology investigate the discoursive practices of musicians and view music as an art of persuasion.2 Indeed, the techniques traditionally employed in constructing a compelling discourse are centuries old, and the art of rhetoric, as practiced from ancient Greek and Roman times to the present, provides a useful framework for discussions of the creative process in popular music, a process I define as one which embraces the activities of recordists3 that precede the issuing of a recording.
    Many songs begin their life in the imaginations of individual songwriters, and through the collaborative approach employed in recording popular music, these songs are often transformed in the studio.4 The creative process which brings about this transformation leads to the establishment of the artistic surface of a recording, and of the five primary divisions of rhetoric, invention and arrangement furnish particularly helpful ways of thinking about that process as it unfolds from the initial conception of a song to the final mix captured on disc. In fact, the invention and arrangement of the subject matter of a discourse, as described in treatises on rhetoric, finds direct parallels in the compositional methods of songwriters such as Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings, both members of The Guess Who during the 1960s (Bachman, lead guitarist, and Cummings, lead singer and keyboard player). In his recent autobiography, co-written with John Einarson, Bachman speaks of an approach to song writing which in certain respects is identical to the art of rhetoric. Bachman liked to analyze songs he heard on AM radio in order to discover what made them hits, and this enabled him to find the basic subject matter for musical discourse in the recordings of other groups, as well as in his own imagination. For example, The Guess Who’s song ‘Laughing’ (1969), written by Bachman and Cummings, drew some of its material from the Bee Gees’ ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941’ (1967), The Dave Clark Five’s ‘Because’ (1964), and The Platters’ ‘Twilight Time’ (1958).5 Bachman and Cummings identified and extracted a salient musical feature from each of these songs and adapted the borrowed material to create the opening, main chord progression, and one of the background vocals of ‘Laughing’. The remaining ‘subject matter’ of the song appears to have been the product of their own imaginations.
    The technique of assembling a musical discourse from disparate sources mirrors the creative process in classical rhetoric, and in this paper I discuss two elements of creativity, invention and arrangement, that are central to both rhetoric and song writing/recording. In deriving the terminological and ideological basis for this discussion from the areas of rhetoric which deal with the finding of ideas and the arranging of those ideas in an artwork, I focus attention on the transformation of musical material. However, my interests lie not in the technical details of making records or in the activities of recordists in their entirety, but in the ways songwriters and recordists discover and structure musical ideas, whether these activities occur in a collaborative way in a recording studio or in the private work-spaces of individuals. In a sense, the discussion centres on form, but not form divorced from content, rather the creation of form from content.
    Classical rhetoric may be defined as the art of persuasive speech,6 and the term invention refers to the discovery of ideas about the subject of a discourse through the systematic gathering of true or plausible matter that would make the case being presented convincing.7 Orators sought material in existing concepts, judgments, and arguments and adapted it to the case at hand; that is, they collected ideas about the subject and analyzed them for their suitability. In order to discover ‘plentifull matter’, to borrow Thomas Wilson’s words written in 1553, speakers mentally visited sets of prescribed topics (pp. 31-2). These topics were regarded as the seats or places, that is, the loci, of effective arguments and included universal topics, which contained arguments from time, analogy, opposition, cause and effect, definition, comparison, and so on, as well as special topics, which held arguments appropriate only for particular subject areas (for example, law or war).8 Topics played an important role in invention, for they provided a formalized method of textual development and helped orators amass the best available materials, wherever they might be located.
    Once the arguments had been found, the orator marshalled the material in an order that would be the most persuasive and arranged the ideas according to their degree of conspicuousness (Ramée 1555: 145).9 On a global level, the oration as a whole could be divided into as many as six large sections (introduction, statement of facts, division, proof, refutation, and conclusion) (Rhetorica ad herennium: III, ix, 16), whereas individual arguments often consisted of five components (proposition, reason, proof of the reason, embellishment, and résumé) (Rhetorica ad herennium: II, xviii, 28). But arrangement also could occur at the level of words and sentences, and the term elocutio encompasses the techniques orators employed to increase persuasiveness at the local level.10 A large number of devices, known as figures, provided speakers with the tools they needed to manipulate words and thoughts, and the figurative use of repetition, opposition, comparison, contrast, exclamation, and so on enhanced the style and thus the effectiveness of the speaker’s language.11
    But orators could apply the principles of invention and arrangement in a masterful way only if their understanding of rhetorical methodology rested on the solid foundation of an education in a wide variety of subjects (Corbett 1990: 95). They acquired this liberal knowledge through reading, observation, and reflection and stored large reservoirs of potential material in their memories, a process similar to the one Randy Bachman describes for writing songs. Bachman enjoyed many different styles of popular music and had, in his own words, ‘a pretty wide palette’ on which to draw (Einarson and Bachman 2000: 229). He and other composers, such as his co-writer Burton Cummings, assembled this varied palette by visiting loci pertinent to their activities; that is, they discovered subject matter for musical discourse by listening to the recordings played on AM radio, by observing the salient features that made each song a hit, and by reflecting on the suitability of those musical ideas for the task at hand. In this way, recordings functioned as the seats or places of ‘plentifull matter’, repositories of material ready to be fashioned into effective musical argument. And just like the orators of earlier centuries, Bachman and Cummings adapted their topical discoveries to suit their goal of composing a persuasive, emotionally appealing song.
    In his autobiography, Bachman recounts the events which led to the composition of ‘Laughing’:
Much to our [The Guess Who’s] chagrin, RCA had asked us for another one like These Eyes as a follow-up after it went gold. We wanted to rock. We wanted an American Woman when they were pressuring us for another These Eyes. But we were stumped to come up with a follow-up in a similar soft rock vein (Einarson and Bachman 2000: 159).
Burton Cummings recalls the moment when The Guess Who’s dilemma was solved:
We were sitting on our bus waiting for the ferry to Vancouver Island in early 1969. Randy started playing the opening chord and Laughing was finished in about fifteen minutes (Einarson and Bachman 2000: 159).
The song probably was written so quickly because Bachman and Cummings had amassed a large number of musical ideas and stored them in their memories. Bachman provides further details of the compositional process:
I was enthralled with the opening strumming minor chord on the Bee Gee’s New York Mining Disaster so I took that triad, turned it into a major chord triad, and placed that before a Dave Clark Five chord pattern from Because, which was a well-worn pattern in dozens of songs dating back to Irving Berlin. We [presumably Bachman and Cummings] then took the background vocals from the Platters’ Twilight Time, the ascending “ahs,” and put them in behind the lyrics. We did all this on the spot. That was enough to get us started; the rest was original, the idea of laughing at someone who broke your heart (Einarson and Bachman 2000: 159).
    This description allows us to position the method of songwriting adopted by Bachman and Cummings within the larger context of rhetorical construction, for Bachman not only informs us of the loci for three of the important musical ideas used in the song but he also reveals how the discoveries were adapted and arranged. The A-minor chord which opens the Bee Gee’s ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941’ (0:00-0:05) is played in the fifth position on the guitar with a quick strumming motion, and in adapting this musical figure, Bachman converts the minor triad to a major one and spaces out the arpeggiations (0:00-0:05). Instead of strumming the chord on every beat of the bar, as the Bee Gee’s had done, Bachman arpeggiates it once at the beginning of the bar and then repeats the top note of the chord on the remaining three beats. The main harmonic argument of ‘Laughing’ was found in a chord progression that had become one of the commonplaces of popular music, a static major harmony with a chromatic line running through it. The specific locus which held this harmonic figure was The Dave Clark Five hit, ‘Because’. From this song, Bachman and Cummings selected the first four bars of the verse harmony (0:08-0:16), transposed the progression from G-major to A-major, and extended the chromatic line so that it not only rose from E to G but also descended back to E. In the penultimate two bars of the argument (0:18-0:23), they added D as a bass note below the A harmony, before closing the progression on C#m7 (0:24). As a means of reinforcing the tension created by the chromatic motion, Bachman and Cummings placed a technique The Platters had used for the background vocals in ‘Twilight Time’ (see, for example, 0:03-0:20), the idea of singing an accompanying line to ‘oo’ or ‘ah’, behind one portion of the lyrics.
    But suitable ideas, once found, needed to be fashioned into effective musical discourse, and Bachman’s description reveals just how attentive the recordists were to arrangement. On a global level, the structural divisions in ‘Laughing’ adhere to the universal pattern of an introduction followed by verses alternating with a chorus, and within each of these divisions, the discoveries were arranged and then enriched through the application of other musical figures. Bachman and Cummings certainly marshalled their material according to its conspicuousness, for they placed the idea with which they were most enthralled at the beginning. Functioning as an exordium, the arpeggiated A-major chord is designed to capture the listener’s attention,12 and like its counterpart in ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941’, it provides the rhythmic impetus for the chord progression Bachman and Cummings selected to underpin the verses. Above this progression, the story begins to unfold, ‘I should laugh but I cry’, and the persuasiveness of Burton Cummings’ singing has been enhanced by the way the components in the musical backdrop have been disposed. This type of arrangement, the distribution of ideas and instruments within the mix, allows recordists to manipulate the texture of songs in order to strengthen the overall effect of the final product. In ‘Laughing’, each structural division, verse, pre-chorus, and chorus, has its own distinctive organization, and the three divisions, taken as a whole, have been arranged to lead the listener up a ladder of intensity to the climactic point in the chorus. In other words, the recordists created the musical equivalent of the rhetorical figure, incrementum. Incrementum involves the amplification of a subject through a continuous and unbroken series of steps in which each new word or idea is stronger than the last, or as Henry Peacham defined the device in 1593, incrementum is the ‘Orators scaling ladder, by which he climeth to the top of high comparison’ (p. 169).13
    Initially, the texture of the first verse remains sparse, the guitar figure of the introduction providing the sole support for the singer. But half way through the verse the mix thickens slightly with the addition of a simple bass-guitar line (0:18). The next segment of text functions as a pre-chorus (0:29-0:48) and is sung to the melody and chord progression of the first verse. The passage the recordists fashion to connect the first two sections leads the listener quite smoothly to the second step of the ladder. The rhythmically syncopated repetition of an E-major chord (0:27-0:28), punctuated by the drums, prepares the way for the increased activity of the pre-chorus, and at the moment the chord progression begins to repeat (0:29), background vocals and keyboard are added. This time, however, the rising chromatic line receives greater prominence through its placement in the background vocals, and the guitar, reinforced by a tambourine, accentuates the fourth beat of each bar. The bass outlines the chord tones of the harmonic argument, while the drums present a decorated backbeat pattern.
    This enrichment of the texture certainly augments the impact of the song, but because the pre-chorus repeats the harmonic argument and vocal line from the first verse, the rate of change of events remains the same. Clearly, even though the emotional intensity of the song has been advanced, the musical arguments have reached only an intermediate stage. Room exists for further non-textual amplification of the subject, and not surprisingly, the listener arrives at the top of the ladder in the chorus (0:49-0:59). In placing the greatest concentration of activity at this point, the recordists are able to reinforce the emotional climax of the song, the idea of someone laughing at you after he or she has broken your heart.
    The chorus employs one of the commonplaces of popular music, the universal call-and-answer topic, and in this application of it, Burton Cummings responds to the other members of the group who sing the word ‘laughing’. A number of factors contribute to the heightened animation of the section, and one of the ways Bachman and Cummings amplify the subject is through an intensification of the harmonic argument. Up to this point in the song, new harmonies had been introduced slowly, one at the beginning of each bar, but in the chorus, chord changes occur as often as one per beat. The entire section consists of two statements of a four-bar phrase, and in the first and second bars of the phrase (0:49-0:53), bars which are virtually identical, Bachman and Cummings place the progression, D-A-Bm7, on beats one, two, and three. In the third bar, where they assign chord changes to every other beat, the harmony progresses from D to E before arriving on A in the last bar (0:54-0:59). These frequent changes help to propel the chorus forward, and in order to strengthen the section further, the recordists increase the rhythmic activity of the tambourine and introduce a riff-like figure in the guitar to duplicate the vocal line at the words ‘Cause you’re doing it to me’ and ‘It ain’t the way it should be’ (0:50-0:53). As the first statement of the phrase draws to a close, the recordists maintain momentum with a guitar figure designed not only to cover the brief moment of harmonic repose present in the bar but also to connect the two strains firmly together (0:57-0:59).
    The energy accumulated in the chorus dissipates in the final bar with the emergence of the introductory guitar figure (1:07). This figure prepares listeners for the second verse but does not return them to the level of intensity they experienced at the beginning of the song. The sustained chords of the keyboard are much more prominent, and the arpeggiated bass line makes the harmony seem less static. Drums, too, are present but the group’s drummer, Garry Peterson, at first limits his playing to marking the beats on a closed high hat (1:07-1:23). The pre-chorus and chorus which follow retain their earlier mixes, and the recording ends with a fade on a continuously re-iterated line from the chorus (the outro begins at 2:15).
    The creative process I have described here reflects Bachman’s general philosophy of teaching song writing: take a favourite song, keep the chord progression and sing a new melody over it, using the same lyrics; then change the lyrics, phrasing, and breaths; and as a final step, alter the tempo (Einarson and Bachman 2000: 317). Without a doubt, invention and arrangement figure prominently in this approach, and an understanding of the parallels between rhetorical construction and song writing/recording allows us to place discussions of a record’s sonic presence on a continuum that extends back to classical times.14


1. See Enos 1996: 604-08 for a discussion of the history of rhetorical criticism.

2. See, for example, Toft 1985 and Toft 1993, as well as Wells 1974 and Sisman 1994. Middleton 1993: 187-8 briefly discusses oratorical performance and considers the benefits of rhetorical analysis for popular music.

3. Like others (see, for example, Zak 2001: xii), I use the term ‘recordists’ to refer to the people involved in shaping, making, and recording the sounds which comprise the text of a song as it appears on the finished product, that is, songwriters, arrangers, band members, producers, engineers, etc.

4. For a detailed study of the collaborative activities of recordists, see Zak 2001.

5. On the composition of ‘Laughing’, see Einarson and Bachman 2000: 159-60, and on Bachman’s approach to teaching songwriting, see Einarson and Bachman 2000: 317.

6. For a survey of rhetoric in classical times, see Corbett 1990. Corbett addresses the purpose of rhetoric on pp. 20-2.

7. The following discussion of invention and arrangement is based mainly on Aristotle, On rhetoric; Cicero, De inventione; Cicero, De oratore; Cicero, Topica; Rhetorica ad herennium; and Quintilian, Institutio oratoria. Many of the pertinent sections from these texts have been published in English translation in Benson and Prosser 1972. Convenient summaries of the central tenets of invention and arrangement are found in Lanham 1968: 106-16 and Enos 1996: 32-6, 349-55, 698-703, 724-6.

8. Examples of the various kinds of topoi may be found in Lanham 1968: 107-12.

9. On this aspect of Ramée’s theory of rhetoric, see Howell 1961: 160ff.

10. For this use of the term elocutio, see Quintilian: Bks VIII-IX.

11. For a list of figures, together with definitions and examples of each figure drawn primarily from sixteenth-century sources, see Sonnino 1968.

12. Exordium may be defined as ‘the beginning whose purpose is to prepare the audience to listen with interest’. See Sonnino 1968: 243.

13. For further discussion of this figure, see Toft 1993: 26-9.

14. The notion of ‘sonic presence’ is discussed in Zak 2001: 45-7.


Bee Gees. 1969. New York mining disaster 1941. Best of Bee Gees. Vol. 1. Polydor 831 594-2.

The Dave Clark Five. 1993. Because. Glad All Over Again: Thirty-five Solid Gold Hits. Hollywood Records CD 61522.

The Guess Who. 1997. Laughing. The Guess Who: The Ultimate Collection. BMG Entertainment RCA 07063 67300-2.

The Platters. 1991. Twilight time. The Very Best of The Platters. PolyGram Records 314 510 317-2


Aristotle. On Rhetoric. Trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991.

Benson, Thomas W., and Michael H. Prosser. 1972. Readings in Classical Rhetoric. Bloomington:     Indiana University Press.

Cicero. De Inventione. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1949.

—. De Oratore. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1948.

—. Topica. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1949.

Corbett, Edward P. J. 1990. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Einarson, John, and Randy Bachman. 2000. Randy Bachman: Takin’ Care of Business. Toronto: McArthur & Co.

Enos, Theresa, ed. 1996. Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Howell, Wilbur Samuel. 1961. Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc.

Lanham, Richard A. 1968. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Middleton, Richard. 1993. Popular Music Analysis and Musicology: Bridging the Gap. Popular Music 12:177-90.

Peacham, Henry. 1593. The Garden of Eloquence. London. Facs. Gainesville, Florida: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1954.

Quintilian. Institutio Oratoria. 4 Vols. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1953-61.

Ramée, Pierre de la. 1555. Dialectique. Paris. Ed. Michel Dassonville. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1964.

Rhetorica ad Herennium. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1954.

Sisman, Elaine R. 1994. Pathos and the Pathétique: Rhetorical Stance in Beethoven’s C-minor Sonata, op. 13. In Beethoven Forum 3, ed. Glenn Stanley, 81-105. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Sonnino, Lee A. 1968. A Handbook to Sixteenth-Century Rhetoric. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Toft, Robert. 1985. An Approach to Performing the Mid 16th-Century Italian Lute Fantasia. The Lute, The Journal of the Lute Society  25:3-16.

—. 1993. Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart: The Art of Eloquent Singing in England, 1597-1622. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Wells, Robin Headlam. 1974. The Art of Persuasion: A Note on the Lyric “Come again: sweet love doth now invite” from Dowland’s First Book of Airs. Lute Society Journal 16:67-9.

Wilson, Thomas. 1553. Arte of Rhetorique. London. Ed. Thomas J. Derrick. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1982.

Zak, Albin J. 2001. The Poetics of Rock: Cutting Tracks, Making Records. Berkeley: University of California Press.