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Simple Semiotic Analysis of Music. Philip Tagg Faculté de musique Université de Montréal P Tagg: Simple semiotics of music. Communication Model. P Tagg: Simple semiotics of music. shared by Emitter and Receiver. s t o r e o f s y m b o l s.

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simple semiotic analysis of music

Simple Semiotic Analysis of Music

Philip TaggFaculté de musiqueUniversité de Montré

P Tagg: Simple semiotics of music


Communication Model

P Tagg: Simple semiotics of music

shared by Emitter and Receiver

s t o r e o f s y m b o l s

emitter only

receiver only

codal incompetence

poïetic / constructional

esthesic / receptional

‘inadequate’ encoding

‘inadequate’ response

Intended ‘message’




‘adequate’ response

‘inadequate’ response

‘inadequate’ encoding

codal interference

receiver only

emitter only

s o c i o c u l t u r a l n o r m s

shared by Emitter and Receiver

semiotics or semiology

same thing!

Semiotics or semiology ?
  •  / (sema/semeion) = sign

(semiotics, semiology, semantifs, semaphore, etc.)

The study of signs and of what they represent

Charles Sanders Peirce : semiotics, tripartite model

Ferdinand de Saussure : semiologie, binary model

same basic subject, different terms and models

sign or symbol terminological problem
Sign or symbol ?(terminological problem)

symbol (Saussure) = sign (Peirce)!

meaning: any ‘thing’ representing any other thing than itself


symbol (Peirce) = sign (Saussure)!

a ‘thing’ representing another thing only by convention


c s peirce semiosis 1 2 3 1

= process of producing and

interpreting signs

C.S. Peirce: Semiosis 1, 2, 3 (1)
  • Firstness(emission)
  • Secondness(the ‘channel’)
  • Thirdness (reception)


The thing/idea perceived before encoding (poïetic pole)


The object(firstness)encoded


Sign(secondness)interpreted(aesthesic pole)

final interpretantsvia connotation

c s peirce semiosis 1 2 3 2 sign typology at level of secondness
C.S. Peirce: Semiosis 1, 2, 3 (2)Sign typology at level of secondness
  • Icon
  • Index(pl. indices)
  • Arbitrary sign

Sign bearing physical resemblance to its object/interprétant

Sign linked to its object/interpretant by proximity or causality

Sign linked only by convention to its object/interpretant

c s peirce semiosis 1 2 3 3 aspects of approach after morris

‘Syntax and semantics, when found in splendid isolation, become perverse disciplines’ (Umberto Eco, 1990)

C.S. Peirce: Semiosis 1, 2, 3 (3)aspects of approach after Morris


Internal (etic) organisation and arrangement (‘form’) of structural elements without necessarily considering their meaning


Links between signs and what they represent (emic) without necessarily considering their use in concrete situations


Use of signs in concrete sociocultural situations (economy, ideology, society, psychology, etc.)

denotation and connotation
Denotation and connotation


Type of lexical meaning associated mainly with arbitrary signs

  • thunder(the word) = noise accompanying lighting

diminished seventh chord = chord consisting of three contingent and superimposed minor thirds


Non-lexical type of meaning mainly associated with indices and which relies on one or more previous levels of semiosis

  • thunder(the sound) = humidity, rain, danger, etc.

diminished seventh chord = horror, 19th century style

connotation smoke alarm sound danger multilevel semiosis 3 causal indices 1 connotation
Connotation: smoke alarm sound = danger!multilevel semiosis (3 causal indices, 1 connotation)










alarm sound



1. smoke triggers alarm; alarm means smoke (causal index 1)

2. fire causes smoke; smoke means fire (causal index 2)

3. fire destroys and hurts; a fire in the home means danger (index 3)

connotation polysemy 2 quotes
Connotation & ‘polysemy’ : 2 quotes

‘The difference between denotation and connotation is not... the difference between “univocal” and “vague” signification, or between “referential” and “emotional” communication... What constitutes a connotation... is the connotative code which establishes it; the characteristic of a connotative code is the fact that the further signification... relies on a primary one.’

(Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, 1979, p. 55)

‘The thoughts which are expressed to me by a piece of music which I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary too definite.’

(Mendelssohn, cited by Cooke: The Language of Music, 1959, p. 5)

music axiomatic working definition
Music: axiomatic working definition
  • type ofsonic, non-verbal, interhuman communication which,
  • according to particularsociocultural conventions,
  • can carry meaning
  • related mainly toemotional, gestural, tactile,
  • kinetic, spatialandprosodic
  • aspects of cognition.
live communication
‘Live’ communication

 spoken languagevisual artsdancemusic

concerted simultaneity

domains of representation and music as the embodying cross domain level
Domains of representation and music as the ‘embodying’ cross-domain level


motoric (fine)






motoric (gross)

synaesthesia and synaesthesis
Synaesthesia and synaesthesis

sun(syn) = with, aisyhsiw(aisthesis) = perception

synaesthesia: disturbance of sensory perception by the intrusion of additional perception from another sense than that considered normal in a given situation

synaesthesis: normal perception using more than one of the five senses simultaneously

synaesthetic (adj.): relating to any type of perception using more than one of the five senses simultaneously


term invented by US musicologist Charles Seeger (father of Pete) ‘On the moods of a musical logic’ (1960)

‘Minimal unit of musical meaning’(cf. morpheme)

‘Musical structure’

What’s that ?

Can it exist?

Good question. We’ll have to see!

Musician’s assumptions

  • Changing a musical structure often produces a change in effect on listeners.
  • If true, there must be links between musical structures and what they communicate (their meanings, their interpretants).
  • If true, there must be basic elements of structuration allowing for the production of musical meaning.

P Tagg: Simple semiotics of music






Paramusical Fieldsof Connotation(relevant to IOCM)


Paramusical Fieldsof Connotation(relevant to AO)

parameters of paramusical expression

P Tagg: Simple semiotics of music

Parameters of paramusical expression
  • Paramusical sound: chatter, chiming, clapping, rattling, applause, mains hum, vinyl crackle, engine noise, birdsong, sound effects, crying, laughing, screaming, scraping, hitting, water, wind, thunder, etc. ad. inf.
  • Oral language: monologue, dialogue, commentary, voice-over, lyrics, accent/dialect, vocal type, prosody, type and speed of conversation/dialogue, &c...
  • Written language: programme or liner notes, promo copy, title credits, subtitles, written devices on stage, expression marks and other performance instructions, &c...
  • Visuals
  • font, graphic design, layout, painting, photo, sculpture, &c…
  • scenario, props, lighting, clothing, &c...
  • dramatic action, facial expressions, gestures, &c...
  • camera positions, cutting speed, editing technique, fades, pans, zooms, &c…
  • Movement: dance, dive, drive, fall, fly, glide, hit, hover, jump, kick, lie, ride, rise, run, slide, sit, stand, stroke, stumble, sway, swerve, wait, walk, &c...
  • (Re-)performance venue + concurrent activity: home, concert, club, TV, cinema, church, sports, dancing, riding, driving, restaurant, hotel, office, factory, circus, street, town, country, &c...
parameters of musical expression 1

P Tagg: Simple semiotics of music

Parameters of musical expression (1)
  • instrumentational
  • number/type of voices/instruments
  • mechanical devices: mutes, pedals, stops, plectrum, string types, reed types, mouthpieces, bows, sticks, brushes, &c...
  • electro-acoustic devices: microphone types & techniques, loudspeakers, echo, reverb, delay, panning, filtering, mixers, amplifiers, equalisers, phasing, flanging, chorus, compression, distortion, vocoding, dubs, &c...
  • performance techniques: vibrato, tremolo, tremolando, glissando, portamento, pizzicato, sul ponte, picking, strum, &c...
  • timbral(timbre)
  • vocal: booming, breathy, clean, clear, cracked, crying, deep, gravelly, harsh, hoarse, howling, growling, guttural, husky, light, melismatic, muffled, piercing, plaintive, raucous, rich, screeching, shouting, shrill, sonorous, soothing, squeaky, squawking, strident, syllabics, thin, warbling, warm, wheezing, whooping, &c...
  • instrumental: as for vocal + blaring, bubbling, buzzing, chiming, clanking, clattering, crashing, grating, hissing, humming, jarring, muted, ringing, rumbling, scraping, stuttering, throbbing, tinkling, whirring, whistling, &c...

Parameters of musical expression (2)

  • temporal parameters
  • duration: [1] of piece and relationship of this duration to other connected aspects of communication (film, rite, sports event, dancing); [2] of sections within the piece
  • internal order/treatment of musical events: intros, cadences, bridges, continuations, interruptions, recurrences (reiterations, repeats, recaps), sequences &c…
  • pulse, tempo: [1] base rate; [2] surface rate.
  • rhythmic texture: polyrhythm, birhythm, monorhythm, &c...
  • metre (rhythmic grouping of pulse, time signature, etc.), e.g. simple, compound, symmetric, asymmetric, additive, divisive, &c...
  • accentuation, e.g. upbeat, downbeat, syncopation, regular,.

P Tagg: Simple semiotics of music


P Tagg: Simple semiotics of music

Parameters of musical expression (3)

  • tonal parameters
  • tuning system: how octave is divided, retuning, detuning, &c.
  • pitch range: average and total for each voice/part; ambitus, tessitura, &c.
  • tonal vocabulary: scale, mode, motifs, number and type of different pitches/notes
  • motivic/melodic contour: rising, falling, oscillating, arched, V-shaped, centric, wavy, terraced, tumbling strain, &c...
  • harmonic parameters
  • tonal centre (if any)
  • type of tonality: droned, modal, diatonic, tertial, quartal, bebop, impressionist, late romantic, twelve-tone, &c…
  • harmonic change as long and short term phenomenon, harmonic rhythm.
  • dynamics
  • loud  soft
  • sudden  gradual
  • constant  variable
simple sign typology of music
Simple sign typology of music

sonic: resemblance to paramusical sound


kinetic: resemblance to paramusical movement

tactile: resemblance to paramusical grain/touch


pars pro toto reference to ‘foreign’ musical style, thence to cultural context of that style

episodic marker

short, one-way process highlighting the order or relative importance of musical events


item of musical structuration typical for the ‘home’ style of the analysis object

P Tagg: Simple semiotics of music


P Tagg: Simple semiotics of music

Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli

Smetana: Vltava (Moldau)


Monocentric musical positioning


‘focal point’


P Tagg: Simple semiotics of music