Tag Archives: Meaning

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. Peirce’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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Recontextualizing Meaning

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 tells of a near-future society where books are banned and “firemen” search out and burn literary contraband. Books are deemed a social menace, spreading ideas, broadening worldviews, feeding imaginations, and triggering emotions. For decades, this perennial classroom classic has been understood as a moral tome against censorship. However, in 2007, the book’s then eighty-seven-year-old author claimed he meant it as a warning about the dangers of technology. He pointed out that denizens of the bleak futurescape surround themselves with giant televisions, and prefer mindless screen time to interpersonal interaction. According to Bradbury, the novel was written at the dawn of the age of television, and predicted a downward spiral into technology dependence.

Presumably, Bradbury found a new message in his old book, or elevated a secondary theme into a central one. In the fifty-plus years that passed, McCarthyism had given way to the Patriot Act, smart phones, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and other modern horrors. Just as his fans had always done, Bradbury probably read current events into the plot line. Sam Weller, Bradbury’s close friend and biographer, wrote as much in an article titled “Ray Bradbury’s 180 on Fahrenheit 451”: “I was well acquainted with his proclivity to contradict himself and his penchant for subtle revisionist history. More than one of Bradbury’s stories morphed over the years, taking on new life, becoming mythical versions of his own reality…. Bradbury’s letters at the time he wrote Fahrenheit 451, even an article he wrote for The Nation on May 2, 1953, clearly show that censorship was at the forefront of his mind when he wrote his classic novel.”

Fundamentally, interpretation involves recontextualizing meaning. Each exposure is, in a sense, a new event, suffused with accumulated experiences, thoughts, and feelings. As the Bradbury case illustrates, this can be as true for the creator as it is for the audience.

An example from the world of songwriting underscores the point. Bruce Springsteen released “Born to Run” in 1975 on a hit record of the same name. In a lengthy introduction during a London concert in 1988, he explained how the song’s meaning had changed for him:

“When I first wrote it, I figured I was writing about this guy and this girl that wanted to get in the car, drive, keep on driving and never come back….But as I got older, I realized I’d put all these people in all these cars and I was gonna have to figure someplace for them to go. I was gonna be able to figure someplace where I belonged, so as I sang this song through the years, I realized that guy and that girl were out there looking for some connection, trying to find some sense of community, some sense of meaning beyond their own individual freedom and someplace maybe that they could call home. And I realized that home wasn’t out there over the next hill or around the corner but that it was buried deep down inside of me, and that if I had the guts I might be able to get a little piece of it.”

Countless other examples could sit alongside these snapshots. In each instance, interpretations are not mutually exclusive: the expansion of themes does not negate prior meanings or variant meanings between people. A work of art that outlives its genesis invariably does so by acquiring new resonances with new places and times. Longevity depends on the adaptability of meaning from person to person, community to community, setting to setting, and now-self to later-self.

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

Musical Meanings

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theories about meaning in music are divided into two main camps: absolutist and referentialist. Absolutists holds that meaning is autonomously generated by the music. Responses stirred are secondary and independent from the music itself, which can only express musicality. Referentialists, on the other hand, contend that music is a shorthand for concepts, actions, images, and mood states. Music legitimately refers to things outside of itself. Whether the truth lies at either pole or resides somewhere in between, this debate usually grants a pass to song. By virtue of incorporating the comparatively straightforward symbolism of language, even the most obscure song is thought to have clearer signification than music without words.

Words substantially relieve music of the burden of generating meaning. They instantaneously imbue sound with an essence, which can change as quickly as the words are switched out for others. Still, it would be a mistake to think that lyrics are the ultimate decider of a song’s meaning. For every song that gives a more or less uniform impression, there are at least as many that leave room for interpretation. This is not only true for lyrics featuring ambiguity or metaphor; even lucid songs can be multivalent.

This is partly because songs typically originate from a personal place. The songwriter writes about experiences and sentiments tied to specific people, settings, moments, and so on. Listeners tend to personalize these themes and make them their own, with all the subjectivity that implies. Another complicating factor is association. The meaning of a song can be formed and re-formed depending on when, where, and with whom it is heard. This is exemplified in the “our song” phenomenon, when strong connections create a sense of ownership, and the “recycled song” phenomenon, when a tune begins on the radio, makes its way into a movie, becomes a wedding song, gets used in a commercial, etc. New meanings accumulate with each new usage.

There are also listeners who pay little attention to song lyrics, either because of thematic non-resonance, linguistic incomprehensibility, or an attraction to something else in the performance. This nullifies any clarity the words may have provided.

In the end, vagueness is a unifying aspect of music with and without words. Lyrics can mitigate uncertainty, but the fuzziness of musical meaning remains.

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

The Role of the Listener

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979), Umberto Eco carefully elucidates “the cooperative role of the addressee in interpreting messages.” When processing a text, the reader derives meaning(s) based on his or her linguistic and cultural competencies. Eco explains that the text itself is never a finished or enclosed product. Its essence is incomplete until it meets the readers’ eyes. And each time it does so, it assumes a new and person-specific character.

This observation fits into Eco’s wider theory of interpretative semiotics, in which words and other signs do not disclose a full range of meaning, but invite readers to construct signification from them. As Eco writes elsewhere, “Every text, after all, is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work. What a problem it would be if a text were to say everything the receiver is to understand—it would never end” (Six Walks in Fictional Woods, 1994). Among the types of signs open to individualized interpretation are natural languages, secret codes, formalized languages, aesthetic codes, olfactory signs, cultural codes, tactile communication and visual input.

Eco distinguishes these systems from music (or “musical codes”), which he considers to be resolutely indeterminate. In his view, there is no depth to the semantic levels produced by musical syntax. A musical line, even when conventional, reveals no real baseline or essential undercurrent for the interpretive process. Virtually everything we extract from the listening experience is culturally conditioned and subjectively filtered. To be sure, this issue is less indicative of song, which is actually a species of text, or “music with a message.”

The abstractness of music is evident whenever an instrumental piece is performed. Take, for example, Vivaldi’s “Spring.” Though it is programmatic—linked by title to a seasonal theme—its Baroque pleasantries can inspire an endless slew of associations, even for listeners familiar with the intended subject matter. It can conjure images of horseback riding, a morning cup of coffee, aristocratic tea parties, falling snowflakes, frolicking dinosaurs, a tray of cupcakes, a journey to Mars. Along with these representations are companion feelings, such as relaxation, invigoration, exhilaration and boredom. The possibilities are as numerous as the individuals who hear it. And, because music is a living and continuously unfolding art, any future listening can evoke an assortment of different connotations.

The vagaries of music make the listener’s role even more crucial than that of the reader (or the receiver of other semiotic stimuli). Not only is musical meaning absent without someone to derive it, but music’s very existence depends on ears to detect it. Operating in the amorphous medium of sound and traveling through the invisible element of air, it needs sensory organs to hear it, bodies to feel it and imaginations to engage it. It has no material form; it takes shape inside the listener. And it is in that materialization that meaning is born.

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