Musico-Literary Studies

For my PhD, I am exploring the thematic use of classical music as a source of identity and survival in contemporary novels set during twentieth- and twenty-first-century conflict. I have wider interests in this area in the thematic use of music in novels as a form of metaphor or analogy to convey difficult concepts, such as identity and memory, while always being aware of the difficulty present when trying to include music in the silent written text.

It is thanks to George Eliot's Adam Bede that I took my path into the world of literature and music. When I read her description of a character's mood as "falling at once from the key of B with five sharps to the frank and congenial C", I began to wonder whether there existed more texts which included technical musical language in them, as simile and metaphor. Researching for my BA dissertation topic, I eventually settled primarily on the contemporary novel, a form which is impacted by recent technological developments and studies in its presentation and use of music, and my BA dissertation was titled 'Music, Identity, and the Self in Three Contemporary Novels: "Does it alter us more to be heard, or to hear? Is it better to have been loved, or to love?", focussing on Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) by Madeleine Thien, An Equal Music (1999) by Vikram Seth, and Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell.

During my PhD studies I have unearthed a long list of these novels which are thematically concerned with music, leading me to focus down on a sub-trend amongst these texts: a preoccupation with conflict. My current research considers how Western classical music (in its most general of definitions) is described and used metaphorically in a selection of contemporary novels, which currently include: Fugitive Pieces (1996) by Anne Michaels, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) by Madeleine Thien, The Concert Ticket (2010) by Olga Grushin, The Noise of Time (2016) by Julian Barnes, A Life’s Music (2002) by Andreï Makine, Orfeo (2014) by Richard Powers, Bel Canto (2001) by Ann Patchett, and The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008) by Steven Galloway. My work is on-going at the moment, and I currently cross multiple disciplinary borders, as I consider elements of trauma theory, conflict transformation studies, ethical issues regarding the re-writing of war, sound studies, musicology, music philosophy, and literature, to name but a few. My focus remains primarily on the literary presentation of music in the contemporary novel, as I analyse how these novels present conflict and upheaval through their thematic use of music.


Dr David Ashurst (English Studies, Durham)

Dr Samuel Thomas (English Studies, Durham)

Professor Martyn Evans (Music Department, Durham; retired Oct 2019)

Publications & Presentations

'Listening to Survive: Classical Music and Conflict in the Musico-literary Novel', Violence: An International Journal, (2020, 18 pages) (open access)

This article introduces my concept of the musico-literary novel, which relies on an interdisciplinary methodology. Focusing on The Cellist of Sarajevo (Galloway) as a case-study, I demonstrate how analysis of a musico-literary novel can engage with discussions surrounding the use of music to exit violence. This article is available Open Access, and more details can be found here.

'Classical Music, Conflict, & Identity in the Contemporary Novel' | Podcast for Late Summer Lectures (2019), Durham (UK)

A public-facing podcast introducing key elements of my PhD research into what I term the 'musico-literary novel', including recordings of specific classical music pieces in comparison with literary descriptions and depictions of the music-listening experience.


As of October 2020, I will be teaching tutorials for the Durham English Studies Department module 'Introduction to The Novel'. This is a compulsory module for all Durham English Studies undergraduates covering the development of the English novel, including Moll Flanders (Defoe), Wide Sargasso Sea (Rhys), Midnight's Children (Rushdie), and In Cold Blood (Capote).