Thursday, January 24, 2008

Semiotics and Structuralism

The earlier posts on semantics lead naturally to a discussion of semiology and structuralism and the application of theories in this area to music. Where as semantics concerns the meaning of words, semiotics more specifically concerns the meaning of symbols. Structuralism is closely related to semiotics and concerns the social and cultural relationships that contribute to meaning.

In Music, Culture and Society, Patricia Tunstall’s article, On Musical Structuralism [page 43, originally published as ‘Structuralism and Musicology: An Overview, Current Musicology, 27 (1979), 61-3] and Gino Stefani's article, On the Semiotics of Music [page 50, originally published as ‘A Theory of Musical Competence’ Semiotica, 66:1/3 (1987), 9-15] provide valuable insights.

Patricia Tunstall notes that semiology is based on the definition given by Saussure as the science of signs, and the existence of a one-to-one relation between a signifier and a signified. This raises difficult definitional questions when applied to music with different views as to what is indeed signified by music. Tunstall suggests that semiology in its true form can not be readily applied to music as there is no strict one-to-one relationship between a signifier and a signified:

…music must be considered not a system of signs but a system of signifiers without signifieds. Therefore musical analysis can make only limited use of the particular virtues of the semiological approach…

She suggests that structuralism as a wider concept may prove more useful in musical analysis with patterns of meaning and relationships being more easily ascertained.

Gino Stefani developes a theory of musical competence. Here five layers are seen to interact in producing musical meaning.

The first of these layers is referred to as the General Codes which relate primarily to the interaction between sound and senses. These are the perceptual and mental schemes, anthropological attitudes and motivations, and basic conventions through which we perceive the world and construct or interpret our experiences. Sound is classified as high/low, near/remote, hard/soft, clear/dark, warm/cold, strong/weak and basic logical schemes enable the identification of aspects such as similarity, opposition and symmetry. This enables complex categorization relating to the form of the music such as granular, pointed, flowing, rounded, wave etc.

The second layer is that of Social Practices. Here cultural institutions such as language, religion, industry, technology, sciences as well as musical practices such as concerts, ballets, opera and criticism all contribute to the development of meaning in music. These are separate to those at the level of General Codes as they may be unique to certain social groups.

The third layer is referred to as Musical Techniques and concerns such things as theories, methods, devices, instrumental techniques, scales, pitch, duration, dynamics, timbre, articulation and compositional forms. Often this is the layer singled out as being the only relevant area to be considered in the semiology of music.

The fourth layer is Styles. These, determined largely by historical periods, cultural movements, authors or groups of works, are the realization of the combination of the earlier layers of musical competence. Here techniques, social practices and general attributes combine to form a recognized genre of music.

The final layer is the Opus or the individual work. Whilst creativity can arise at any level, the finished product is most often considered the result of the composition and the means of delivering communication.

The aim of Stefani in this article was to develop a theory that stepped beyond the level of musical technique in considering the production of meaning in music:

… by embedding ‘pre-musical’ levels our model allows us to embody not only systems of morphology, syntax and rhetoric, but also those ‘speech acts’ or ‘communication acts’ which explain – to a certain extent – the constitution and working of these ‘technical levels’…

Theories on how meaning is produced provide important building blocks to understanding how communication can be facilitated or constricted. In future posts relating to music which aims to educate and empower, it is hoped further discussion can be given to why a song can be interpreted in different ways by different people, and how external factors influence the production and reception of music, and ultimately the ability of it to produce the social impact it desires.

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