Linguistic usage

A trope is a rhetorical figure of speech that consists of a play on words, i.e. using a word in a way other than what is considered its literal or normal form. The other major category of figures of speech is the scheme, which involves changing the pattern of words in a sentence.

Trope comes from the Greek word, tropos, which means a "turn", as in heliotrope, a flower which turns toward the sun. We can imagine a trope as a way of turning a word away from its normal meaning, or turning it into something else.

A large number of tropes have been identified, among them:

(For a more comprehensive listing, see Figure of speech)

Literary usage

In literature, a trope is a familiar and repeated symbol, style, character or thing that permeates a particular type of literature. They are usually tied heavily to genre. For example, tropes in horror literature and film include the mad scientist or a dark and stormy night. Tropes can also be plots or events, such as the science fiction trope of an alien invasion that is deterred at the last minute.

Authors that rely on tropes are often seen as unimaginative and dull. However, many authors have twisted tropes into new forms to great success. Stephen King has been noteworthy for taking older horror tropes and reworking them into the modern world to great effect.

Tropes in philosophy of history

The use of tropes has been extended from a linguistic usage to the field of philosophy of history by, among other theoricists, Hayden White in his Metahistory (1973). Tropes are generally understood to be styles of discourse - rather than figures of style - underlying the historian's writing of history. They are historically determined in as much as the historiography of every period is defined by a specific type of trope.

For Hayden White, tropes historically unfolded in this sequence: metonymy, metaphor, synecdoche and, finally, irony.

Tropes in music

In Medieval music

In the Medieval era, troping was an important compositional technique. There were two basic types of tropes: textual and musical. A textual trope involved the assigning of a new text to an existing musical melisma. A musical trope was the insertion of new notes into a piece of music, creating or extending a melisma.

In 20th century music

In serial music, a trope is an unordered collection of six different pitches, what is now called an unordered hexachord, of which there are two (complementary ones) in twelve tone equal temperament. Tropes were used by Josef Matthias Hauer in his twelve-tone technique developed simultaneously but overshadowed by Arnold Schoenberg's.

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