Peter Dayan

Honorary Professorial Fellow in Word and Music Studies


Peter Dayan grew up in South Shields, and went to university in Oxford, where he was Junior Research Fellow at Lincoln College. He came to Edinburgh as a lecturer in French in 1985, and has been here ever since, apart from a year teaching at the university of Aix-en-Provence, and another at the University of New South Wales. He became the world’s first (and to date, only!) Professor of Word and Music Studies in 2007. He retired in May 2021, and is now an Honorary Professorial Fellow.

From 2015 to 2019, he was also Obel Visiting Professor at the University of Aalborg, where he worked with the Centre for Research in Contemporary Poetry and the Interdisciplinary Research Group in Culture.



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Undergraduate teaching

I am no longer undertaking any undergraduate teaching.

Postgraduate teaching

My main contribution to postgraduate teaching is my MSc option entitled Poetry Music Translation, which has been taken by many students who have subsequently gone on to do PhDs (here or elsewhere) in the field of Word and Music Studies. The syllabus is largely determined by the students: they bring to the course poems on the theme of music originally written in a language other than English, and we discuss the theme of music in poetry, the link between that theme and the properties of the poem itself (such as form and sound), and what happens to musicality when a poem is translated. I also make some contributions to theory courses in Intermediality and Comparative Literature.

Open to PhD supervision enquiries?


Areas of interest for supervision

I am no longer accepting new PhD students. Still, I remain proud of my record as supervisor of adventurously comparative or interdisciplinary PhDs. Former postgraduate students of mine are now teaching at universities in Scotland, England, Canada, the USA, China, New Zealand, France, the Netherlands, and Germany.

My current research students are working on: memory in the music of Schoenberg; Russolo’s “art of noise”; a typological comparison between the Rig Veda and French symbolist poetry; musical performativity in novels of the early 20th century; and music in the writings of Yves Bonnefoy. Past students have successfully completed theses on:  Algernon Swinburne, Shao Xunmei, and music; the history of the concept of "esprit de corps", in English and in French; music and the influence of European writers on the work of Shen Congwen; Tristan Tzara's artist's books; the place of literature in the development of Englightenment opera; prophecy and apocalypse in avant-garde poetry; the concept of music in the works of Edgar Allan Poe; music and vagueness in French 19th-century painting; music in postcolonial Indian literature; Nerval and the concept of madness in literature; retranslations into English of novels by Flaubert and Sand; Benjamin, Barthes, and photography; the figure of the woman of mixed race in French literature; Derrida and German romanticism; rhythm in French verse, from Baudelaire to Mallarmé; Stendhal and anti-psychiatry; Zola and the legal system; Lyotard and John Cage; gender and narrative voice in the novels of George Sand.


Research summary

My home territory is Word and Music Studies. For two centuries, European literature has compulsively defined itself by referring to music – and European music has equally compulsively defined itself by reference to poetry. The visual arts have joined in this merry round: innumerable painters since the Romantic period have described their works as songs, symphonies, or poems. Why? Why does every art feel the need to define itself by reference to works in other media? This question, for me, has led to an endlessly fascinating series of investigations into how artists, in all media, conceive of their art as something that escapes any rational analysis of what is going on within the medium. Strictly musical analysis won't allow you to understand the value of a sonata, and no amount of investigating prosody or the meaning of words will allow you to appreciate a poem; their true worth is always projected through another medium, inaccessible to our critical tools. I have found this method of enquiry works with an astonishing range of artists and, indeed, non-artistic writers from all over the world, since the 19th century, at least from Beethoven to Janis Joplin. Even Charles Darwin, for example, came to associate music and poetry as fundamentally similar in their functioning. At the same time, Darwin came to see that this artistic functioning was inexorably alienated from the scientific method. As a scientist, he eventually found himself unable to read a line of poetry, or listen to any music. This incompatibility between science and the arts has more recently become something we do not wish to acknowledge; but it retains its force, and for me its attraction.

Current research interests

I am currently finishing a book entitled _For the Love of Art_, to be published by Legenda, which chronicles my life-long obsession with the question of what art is, why and how we love it, and its problematic relationship with the truth (and with democratic and scientific values). After that, I will be writing the world's first handbook of word and music studies, for Brill.

Past research interests

Until the late 1990s, before I discovered "word and music studies" and made my home there, my research was on well-known 19th-century French authors, principally Mallarmé, Nerval, Lautréamont and Sand. This gave rise to the three books of criticism I published between 1986 and 1997. I was concerned to show how they create a new kind of idealism, one which situates the ideal permanently one step ahead of its pursuers. I retain my interest in these authors and in this question, as well as in Barthes and Derrida, who, in many ways, were the inheritors of these traditions.

Knowledge exchange

I have no major impact or knowledge exchange projects ongoing, but I have given a few public talks over recent years (usually in connection with art exhibitions, at the Queen's Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland), and would be keen to give more.

Project activity

In the academic year 2016-2017, I am on half-time research leave. My primary research projects are:

1) to continue my work on the place of music in the Dada movement;

2) to begin a new project investigating the history of free verse as an international phenomenon;

3) to support the community of young scholars working in the field of work and music studies;

4) to contribute to the seminars, conferences, and publications organised by the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Poetry and by the Department of Culture and Global Studies in Aalborg;

5) to engage with the research strand "Valuing Creativity" at Edinburgh.

View all 55 publications on Research Explorer

Conference details

For information on my conference papers, please see my "CV", in the "Biography" section of this web site.