May 2007


New media researcher Angela Thomas has written a lovely post about my semiotics of music experiment. I have drawn on MAK Halliday’s systemic functional semiotics to develop a schema for music, which can be used to analyse multimodal texts.

semiotics of music

Interestingly there seems to have been very few attempts at developing such schemas. Angela raised a useful question in relation to my schema, namely that there is no listing for an analogue of adverbial phrase – or even adjectival phrase come to think of it. My response is two-fold. Firstly, if an adverb-function were to exist, it would probably lie in the selection of mode – major, minor, dorian etc – which would provide a sense of the manner in which a musical phrase acts/creates drama or action.

My second response is that music, along with other non-linguistic systems of signification, probably doesn’t translate directly into a linguistic model. Sure, linguistic or literary semiotics is probably the most highly developed as a means of analysing texts (however broadly defined), but I’m not entirely convinced that such a model maps all the signifying activity of a non-linguistic or multimodal text. It does, however, form a useful point of entry to any discussion of how we make meaning with non-linguistic or para-linguistic signs. Is there a grammar of music? Emphatically yes, but beyond forms of analogy, I remain uncertain as to how far one can map it directly onto a linguistic model.

But there remains the tantalising possibility that one could develop a metalanguage for analysis of music and how it functions to make meaning within a sign system.

Cheers
Jerry

Music – a Systemic Functional Approach

Some years ago, when studying under Michael O’Toole at Murdoch University, I began experimenting with some thoughts on applying MAK Halliday’s systemic functional semiotics to music. To my knowledge, even 20 years later no-one else has sketched out such a schema. So, with some trepidation I thought I’d dig out that early naive schema and seek views on whether such a schema might still be useful as a point of entry into musical semiotics, and as a means of finding a language with which to deal with extra-linguistic artistic works. All that remains of that original lecture is the diagram that I developed and which I will lay out below. Then I’ll try to reconstruct a pathway by way of explanation for each element of the schema.

FUNCTION >

RANK
\/

IDEATIONAL
(Propositional/representational)
INTERPERSONAL
(Modality)
TEXTUAL
(Compositional)
SCHOOL/PERIOD
(Ideological base)
Religious/Secular
Canonical/Popular
Orientation
i)Form (eg Classical)
ii)Ornament (eg baroque)
iii) Sense (eg romantic)
Genre
WORK Type of orchestration/Intertextuality Modality
- fantasy
-description
-irony
-etc
as expressed by:
-voicing
-key
-dynamics
-’weight’ etc
Frame
eg song/folk dance/tonepoem/sonata/etc
MOVEMENT Interplay of
i)thematic structure
ii)sub-themes
eg: statement, recapitulation,cadence (ending), conjunction
Mood
eg slow movement

Mode
eg -major
-minor
-dorian
-lydian
-chromatic
-pentatonic etc

Range
-pitch
-volume

Instrumentation

Textual coherence :
-interplay of theme
-conjunctions/transitions
-sub-themes
modulations:
-to different key
-to different mode
-tonal ambiguities
PHRASE
(Verbal group)
Theme+rhythm:
anticipation
recapitulation
cadence
conjunction
Modifiers
-rhythmic
-tempo
Contrast options:
-rhythm
-tempo
-pitch
-dynamic range(loud/soft)

-pauses

THEME
(nominal group)
Play of figures
(nominal ‘characters’)
Characterisation:
relation to hearer – ‘gaze’
-pointers to key tonality
-colour
-dynamics
-line (melodic sequence)
Deixis:
Tonal qualifiers – flat 5ths/7ths etc

Key statement

Cadences (endings)

MOTIF
(Morphemes)
Lexical content
recognisable figures

recurrent patterns

Lexical Register:
Modified motifs:
-changed mode
-changed key
-inversions
-changed rhythm
Collocations:
-position in theme
-posn in movement
-posn in Work
parallelism/contrasts
NOTE
(Phoneme)
Basic unit of information:

pitch+length

degree of scale:
8-octave
7-leading-note
6-sub-mediant
5-dominant
4-sub-dominant
3-mediant
2-supertonic
1-tonic

Oppositions:

sound/silence
long/short
loud/quiet
high/low (pich)
chord/single note

Position in harmonic series

distribution

collocation

intervals

voicing

Much of this is self-explanatory, and has to do with the orientation of the music to the listener and to the culture into which it is inserted. Like all modes of signification, music has context, and a relationship to that context, whether to music history, or to style, or to genre. Each individual work is made up of elements each with their defining characteristics such as relationship to the key, voicing, sound/silence oppositions and so on.

The object here is to develop a way of talking about non-linguistic artistic texts in a schema that is relatively independent of a formal knowledge of music. That is, to try to come up with a descriptive semiotics of music by observing how it is structured, and how it functions within the culture.

I welcome suggestions on how I might develop this crude model further. In the meantime, I thought that after 20 years it is high time it got some wider exposure. If you use it, please acknowledge the source, but otherwise feel free to use and modify as you see fit.

And I welcome comments.

Cheers
Jerry

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