Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Semiotics of Music

Semiotics is the study of the meaning of signs. As a study, it originated in association with hermeneutics, which is the study of text (Yes, I'm being simplistic, but intentionally so: It's a deeeeeep subject. To find out how deep, read the article on semiotics I added the the "Articles I Found Interesting" segment in the sidebar). As a result - in my opinion - semiotics as applied to music will always fall short of being anything like an absolutely certain science, and will always remain diluted by subjectivity and speculation: There is a certain inescapable arbitrariness involved which is similar to that I find associated with Schenkerian analysis.

In the case of absolute music especially, the music is the text, and it expresses the inexpressible and even the inexplicable: There is simply no linguistic text to hermeneutically analyze for semiotic signifiers. However, that is not to say that a keenly developed awareness of semiotics is not usefull for the composer or theorist. To the contrary, traditional analysis techniques have as their main shortcomings that they totally and completely remove all traces of the signifiers that elicit emotional response. It is the nebulousness of the responses elicited that is the problem: Different listeners with divergent cultural backgrounds or life experiences may experience quite different things. As a result, the signifiers in music will never aquire definitive labels, and that is simply that.

This need not hang up those of us who are composers, though I would think that a particularly rigorous theorist would be left with a certain uneasiness when dealing with such a slippery subject.

The last course I took at UNT during my doctoral studies was The Semiotics of Music. It was taught by a very cool and funny prof named Dr. Schwartz, if memory serves. Since it was just a three hour credit and a single semester course, I certainly don't claim to be any kind of a expert on this subject. However, I found the subject quite fascinating and useful if I - as is my usual practice with all things theoretical - took what I liked, flushed what I didn't, and bent the process to fit my method of working (Actually, semiotics created some completely new methodologies for me to use).

What works for me as I develop a piece is to decide what the materials I come up with signify to me, and how I can elicit various shades of meaning by varying them and contrasting them with other materials. Believe it or not, this works great as an approach to fugue writing. I kid you not. Writing different counterpoint to a fugue subject can radically change the feelings elicited, and this can add a great deal of charm to a fugue. Not only that, but episodic passages can set the stage for the appearance of these variations - while they function as signifiers themselves - and can put them into a sort of bas relief which only serves to increase their effectiveness. Needless to say, composers such as Bach and Beethoven have been doing this since long before semiotics appeared as a field of study.

In the guitar fugue I wrote a while back, I found that I could write countersubjects to the major mode variant of the subject that elicited smiles from me because the result reminded me of the kind of music that is often played on a steam calliope. I remain doubtful that this signifier would be relatable to very many people, and am certain that folks who have never heard a steam calliope (Or the music I've heard played on one) would recognize the sign for what signifies to me. That's not the point though: The point is to include semiotic elements that signify specific things to you as the composer.

In the case of absolute music which is not intentionally programatic in nature, the signifiers that you chose will relate something to the listener, and the variety of responses are really of no concern to you as a composer (Though I find audience members who share what my music meant to them to be highly entertaining, and their descriptions range from the absurd to the sublime. That's one of the most endearing things about music in my opinion: Everybody creates their own little universe within it).

The bottom line concerning semiotics in music to me, is that it gives me another set of tactical and strategic tools to use in the creation of art. Just as I've never met a redhead I didn't like, I've never found a music theory approach I couldn't make some use out of.

OK. I take that back.


Blogger Terminal Degree said...

I also took a Semiotics class in grad school. Yes, it was fascinating stuff, and a new approach, in a way. It was also one of the most demanding classes I've ever taken.

Unfortunately, I left that class each day to go teach my first college class ever -- music appreciation. Talk about two different ends of the musical spectrum, and two very different kinds of students. It took me a while to learn what to expect out of those frosh. :) '

2:09 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Try this on a music appreciation class for a grin: Find a Beethoven piano piece that has a peaceful major mode section followed by a prolonged fully diminished chord (Tons of them exist), and let them listen to it. Then say something along the lines of, "The placating major mode hermeneutics of that passage lead me to believe that this diminished prolongation must be a signifier of the abject, or of horror, in semiotic terms." The blank stares ought to be priceless. ;^)

BTW: Thanks for turning me onto the Angry Professor blog through your link list. It's hysterical.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Adam Baratz said...

Taruskin's analysis of the Farewell Symphony in the Oxford History deals with it in terms of internal and external signifiers. The results were pretty interesting.

11:43 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Thanks Adam,

I'll have to check that out, as that's one of my favorite Haydn works.

12:33 AM  

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