Category Archives: communication

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.

Whistled Speech

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The line between speaking and singing is often blurred. In the Hebrew Bible, poetry and song are both called shir, suggesting that poetry was performed in speech-song. A similar simultaneity of song and poetry is present in human cultures across time and geography. Part of this owes to the shared mechanism of sound production: the human voice. It is commonly observed that infants “sing” before they speak. Expressive speech has qualities homologous with sprechstimme. Intense emotions are vocalized in shouts and groans verging on the musical. Even ordinary verbal communication lends itself to musical notation.

This points to a basic principle: Where there is speech, there is song. William A. Aikin touched on this in his article on singing in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1939): “It is part of our natural condition to possess organs for the production of sound, and perceptions to make them musical, and, being thus equipped, it is but natural that the art of music should be intimately associated with human life.” Because the impulse to communicate manifests in both speech and song, there is a natural spillover: speech tends toward song and song is shaped by speech.

Intonation variation is used in every language to mark emphases, differences, and emotional color. There are also many tonal languages, which utilize contrasting tones—rises and falls in pitch—to distinguish words and their grammatical functions. Roughly seventy percent of languages are tonal, accounting for about a third of the world’s human population. They are most prevalent in Central America, Africa, and East Asia. Mandarin Chinese, for instance, has four distinct tones: flat, rising, falling, and falling then rising.

A few tonal languages take speech-song a step further. They feature a whistling counterpart, or a whistled mode of speech. These melodic dialects are based on the spoken language: words are simplified and represented, syllable-by-syllable, contour-by-contour, through whistled tunes. Such communication is typically a musical-linguistic adaption to mountainous or heavily forested areas where daily work is performed in relative isolation. The whistles carry over great distances and can be heard over environmental noises. The practice is found in remote towns and villages in various parts of the globe, including Turkey, France, Mexico, Nepal, New Guinea, and the Canary Islands.

The instinctive and effective translation of spoken words into whistled melodies highlights the bond between speech and song. There is a modicum of musicality in English and other non-tonal languages. Tonal languages display more explicit musical aspects. Whistled languages make music the audible center. Yet, for all their diversity, the relationship of all the world’s languages to song is a difference of degree more than of kind.

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