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Semiotic Analysis:. A Research Guide Presented by Megan Henley, Michelle Keddy, Benjamin Kinsman, Michelle Muggridge and Karen Shields. Introduction. Although the earliest origins of semiotics can be traced back to Aristotle and Augustine, it didn’t begin to be fully developed

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Semiotic analysis

Semiotic Analysis:

A Research Guide

Presented by Megan Henley, Michelle Keddy, Benjamin Kinsman, Michelle Muggridge and Karen Shields.


Although the earliest origins of semiotics can be traced back to

Aristotle and Augustine, it didn’t begin to be fully developed

until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Semiotics is a broad topic which can be applied to many different

fields, including media studies, theatre and music. Musical

semiotics is a complex and relatively new topic; consequently

materials explaining musical semiotics were very difficult to find

in our library. Thus, the following presentation will not explain

musical semiotics, but will show how one might further research

this topic.


Basically, semiotics is the study of signs and their meanings!

Signs include words, gestures, images, sounds, and objects.

According to Ferdinand de Saussure, a founder of modern

semiotics,sign consists of two parts: the signifier (the form

which the sign takes) and the signified (the concept represents).


For example, an everyday example is a stop sign. In this

example, the physical sign is the signifier. The concept of

stopping is the signified.

=the signifier


=the signified


However, signfiers can have multiple signifieds. Take the color

red for example:






Problems with semiotics
Problems with Semiotics

“Semiotics is essentially a theoretical approach to communication

in that its aim is to establish widely applicable principles…It is

thus vulnerable to the criticism that it is too theoretical, too

speculative and that semioticians make no attempt to prove or

disprove their theories in an objective, scientific way.” (Fiske

1982, 118)

“A musical phrase or even a tone has, as any musician...knows,

many possible kinds of signification and significance -- i.e.

‘meaning’.” (Coker 1972, 2)

Semiotic terms
Semiotic Terms

  • Semantics: the relations of signs to their contexts and to what they signify.

  • Syntactics: the kinds of signs, their ordering, and their relations to one another.

  • Pragmatics: the ways in which signs are used and interpreted.

The semiotic square
The Semiotic Square

  • Opposites give each other meaning. For example, black & white, love & hate.

  • Binary Opposition: One signifier (A) vs. another signifier (B) For example, good guy vs. bad guy, tonality vs. modality.

  • Semiotic Square: A visual representation of the logical articulations of any semantic category.

Semiotic square
Semiotic Square

  • The semiotic square diagrams the ways in which, starting from any given term, a complete meaning system can be derived through exhaustion of logical possibilities. This is accomplished by developing the traditional logical concepts of contradictory (diagonal arrows) and contrary (horizontal arrow)

The semiotic square1
The Semiotic Square










Mediates between

S1 and S2

Negates both S1 and S2

A musical example
A Musical Example

vouloir être

vouloir faire

Actor D

Actor A

Actor C

Actor B

vouloir non-faire

vouloir non-être

Historical context
Historical Context

Musical Semiotics is essentially a new concept of musical

analysis and is very subjective. Although it can be applied to all

forms of music, it is best used on chance and program music.


University of Aarhus Center for Semiotics Homepage

Semiotics for Beginners

Music Theory Online (go to All Issues, then, Search the

Database, then Order Form, select search type and enter

semiotics to get a list of articles on musical semiotics.)

Sites of Significance for Semiotics.


index.htmSemiotics of Music, presented by Eero Tarasti

Cyber Semiotic Institute.

What is Semiotics?

Semiotics Links

The American Journal of Semiotics


Semiotics - University of Colorado and Denver Solomon's Music Theory &

Composition Resources

Bibliographic sources

Canadian Semiotic Association



Semiotic Analysis of Images.