Peter Dayan

Professor of Word and Music Studies, Head of French and Francophone Studies

  • French and Francophone Studies
  • Department of European Languages and Cultures
  • School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures

Contact details



Room 3.45
50 George Square

Post code


  • Please feel free to knock on my door at any time (if I am busy I will say so!). Office hours: normally Tuesdays 11-12 and Thursdays 10-11, though I will sometimes be away at these times. If you can't find me, please e-mail for an appointment.


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.

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



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Undergraduate teaching

My undergraduate teaching concentrates on French 19th-century literature, especially poetry after 1850. My French undergraduate honours option courses are on the figure of the monster in French literature, and French verse in the second half of the 19th century.

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 offer an option on "America Translated", on how American and French poets and artists (including Poe, Whistler, Baudelaire and Mallarmé) saw each other's nations, in artistic terms, between about 1830 and 1920. I provide modules on Derrida and on Word and Music Studies as part of courses on theory and methods of literary study.

Open to PhD supervision enquiries?


Areas of interest for supervision

I am proud of my record as supervisor of adventurously comparative or interdisciplinary PhDs. Three of my students have successfully completed their PhDs in the past year (all awarded the degree with only minor corrections), so I am keen to take on more! Former postgraduate students of mine are now teaching at universities in Scotland, England, Canada, the USA, China, New Zealand, France, and Germany.

My current research students are working on: memory in the music of Schoenberg; Russolo’s “art of noise”; music in the medieval prose Tristan; Algernon Swinburne, Shao Xunmei, and music; novels about composers of music. Past students have successfully completed theses on: 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. I would be very keen to supervise students interested in any aspect of word and music studies, but as the above list will have suggested, if a prospective student has a promising idea, however unusual, I will be happy to discuss it.

A number of students have come to Edinburgh for one semester as visiting postgraduate students, to work with me on “word and music topics” and to take my postgraduate taught course on poetry, music, and translation; this has been a very rewarding experience, and I am happy to consider such applications.

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 have recently been investigating the interart dynamic at work in the Dada movement, where the role of music has never been properly recognised. Dada is normally thought of as a noisy movement, rejecting conventional musicality. But this is false. In fact, throughout its history, tonal music, both present in the soirées and evoked in internal Dada politics and polemics, played a fundamental role. My book _The Music of Dada: a lesson in intermediality for our times_ (Ashgate, 2018) shows for the first time the importance of music in Dada, and explains why that importance has never previously been acknowledged. Music, for the Dadaists as for so many of their predecessors and followers, can be seen as the very essence of art - provided that one does not speak of it. Meanwhile, I continue to respond to requests for articles and lectures by applying my "word and music" methodology to a wide range of topics. I am currently working, for example, on the instructions given to the side drummer in Nielsen's 5th Symphony; on words giving way to music in Janis Joplin's recording of "Me and Bobby McGee"; on Tristan Tzara singing his "Chanson Dada" in the film _Dadascope_ over images of a man being pushed into a large washing machine; and on the history of audience reactions to the three birds whose songs Beethoven purports to represent in his Pastoral Symphony. In my seminars at Aalborg, I consider one of my main remits to be a careful comparison between the Anglophone and Francophone critical traditions. I aim to show how the former, despite being crucially influenced by the latter, tends to sweep under the carpet certain key interrogations that French critical theory raised in the late 20th century, and which are as relevant as ever. My next major project concerns the relationship between the composer Debussy and the poet Verlaine. It will focus on the role of misogyny and domestic violence in determining how Debussy saw Verlaine as a man and as a poet.

Past research interests

Until the late 1990s, 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.