The Semiotics of Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Comparisons between music and language hit a wall when the focus turns to meaning. Although both are innate modes of human expression which, in their vocalized forms, use the same mechanisms of respiration, phonation, resonance, and so on, they function differently. Whereas English speakers would agree about the meaning of a word like “chair,” there is no such consensus about the meaning of a chord or scale. Outside of song, which is basically a form of stylized speech, meaning in music tends to be subjective. As a result, some scholars have taken to limiting—or even dismissing—the possibility of shared musical meaning. However, when we look beyond direct comparisons with language, we see distinct cultural meaning assigned to all sorts of things, ranging from music and food to gestures and facial expressions. “Chair” might not have a musical equivalent, but meaning is discerned in other ways.

An appeal to semiotics, the science of signs, seems most appropriate when evaluating musical meaning. Especially helpful is C. S. Pierce’s formulation of three types of signs: symbols, indexes, and icons.

Of the three, symbols are the least instructive. Language is a system of symbols, wherein each word or phrase has a definite and consistent meaning, albeit often contextually defined. Words are a shortcut for something else; the word “angry” represents an emotional state, but the word itself is not that emotional state. Language is essential for describing and analyzing music, but as ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino explains, such symbols “fall short in the realm of feeling and experience.” Symbols are secondary or after-the-fact, and may distract from the intimacy and immediacy of the musical experience.

Musical signs are more fruitfully viewed as indexes: signs that point to objects or ideas they represent. This applies mainly to music associated with a particular concept or occasion. For example, a national anthem performed at a sporting event becomes an index of patriotism, while a Christmas song heard while shopping becomes an index of the season. Through a combination of personal and shared experiences, these pieces—with or without their lyrics—serve as repositories of cultural meaning. On a smaller scale, music can serve as an index of romantic relationships or peer group affiliations.

Musical icons resemble or imitate the things they represent. These can include naturalistic sounds, such as thunder played on kettledrums, or mental states conveyed through musical conventions, such as ascending lines signaling ascent or exuberance. Icons tend to be culturally specific, such that listeners in a music-culture develop shared understandings, even as individuals add idiosyncratic layers to those understandings.

Precision, directness, and consistency are the lofty goals of language, but these are not the only ways meaning is conveyed. Musical meaning relies on non-linguistic systems, such as signs and indexes. While these may not be as steady or specific as language, they communicate shared meaning just the same.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.


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