Music semiology

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Music semiology (semiotics) is the study of signs as they pertain to music on a variety of levels.


Following Roman Jakobson, Kofi Agawu (2008,[page needed]) adopts the idea of musical semiosis being introversive or extroversive—that is, musical signs within a text and without. "Topics," or various musical conventions (such as horn calls, dance forms, and styles), have been treated suggestively by Agawu, among others. The notion of gesture is beginning to play a large role in musico-semiotic enquiry.

There are strong arguments that music inhabits a semiological realm which, on both ontogenetic and phylogenetic levels, has developmental priority over verbal language. (Middleton 1990, p. 172 and see Nattiez 1976, Nattiez 1987, Nattiez 1989, Stefani 1973, Stefani 1976, Baroni 1983, and Semiotica 66 1987, 1–3).

Writers on music semiology include Kofi Agawu (on topical theory, Schenkerian analysis), Robert Hatten (on topic, gesture), Raymond Monelle (on topic, musical meaning), Jean-Jacques Nattiez (on introversive taxonomic analysis and ethnomusicological applications), Anthony Newcomb (on narrativity), Thomas Turino (applying the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce), and Eero Tarasti (generally considered the founder of musical semiotics).[citation needed] Roland Barthes, himself a semiotician and skilled amateur pianist, wrote about music in some of the essays collected in Image, Music, Text (Barthes 1977) and The Responsibility of Forms (Barthes 1985), as well as in the essay "Eiffel Tower" (Barthes 1982,[page needed]), though he did not consider music to be a semiotic system.[citation needed]

Signs, meanings in music, happen essentially through the connotations of sounds, and through the social construction, appropriation and amplification of certain meanings associated with these connotations. The work of Philip Tagg (Ten Little Tunes, Fernando the Flute, Music’s Meanings)[full citation needed] provides one of the most complete and systematic analysis of the relation between musical structures and connotations in western and especially popular, television and film music. The work of Leonard B. Meyer in Style and Music (Meyer 1989) theorizes the relationship between ideologies and musical structures and the phenomena of style change, and focuses on Romanticism as a case study. Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff (Lerdahl and Jackendoff 1983) analyze how music is structured like a language with its own semiotics and syntax.


  • Agawu, Kofi (2008). Music as Discourse: Semiotic Adventures in Romantic Music. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-020640-6.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Ashby, Arved (2004). "Intention and Meaning in Modernist Music". In The Pleasure of Modernist Music, edited by Arved Ashby,[full citation needed] ISBN 1-58046-143-3.
  • Baroni, Mario (1983). "The Concept of Musical Grammar", translated by Simon Maguire and William Drabkin. Music Analysis 2, no. 2:175–208.
  • Barthes, Roland (1977). Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath. New York : Hill and Wang. ISBN 9780809057405; ISBN 9780374521363.
  • Barthes, Roland (1982). "The Eiffel Tower". In A Barthes Reader, edited, and with an introduction, by Susan Sontag, 236–50. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 9780809028153; ISBN 9780880290159; ISBN 9780374521448.
  • Barthes, Roland (1985). The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, edited by Richard Howard. Oxford: Basil Blackwell; New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 9780809080755; ISBN 9780809015221.
  • Jackendoff, Ray (1987). Consciousness and the Computational Mind. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.[ISBN missing].
  • Lerdahl, Fred, and Ray Jackendoff (1983). A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press[ISBN missing].
  • Meyer, Leonard B. (1989). Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226521527.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Middleton, Richard (1990). Studying Popular Music. Milton Keynes and Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 9780335152766 (cloth); ISBN 9780335152759 (pbk).
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1976). Fondements d'une sémiologie de la musique. Collection Esthétique. Paris: Union générale d'éditions. ISBN 9782264000033.
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1987). Musicologie générale et sémiologie. Collection Musique /Passé/Présent. Paris: C. Bourgois. ISBN 9782267005004
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1989). Proust as Musician, translated by Derrick Puffett. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-36349-5 (cloth); ISBN 978-0-521-02802-8.
  • Semiotica 66 (1987).[full citation needed].
  • Stefani, Gino (1973). "Sémiotique en musicologie". Versus 5:20–42.
  • Stefani, Gino (1976). Introduzione alla semiotica della musica. Palermo: Sellerio editore.

Further reading[edit]