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This review appeared in Volume 6 (3) of the Semiotic Review of Books.

Musical Narratology

William Echard

A Theory of Musical Semiotics. By Eero Tarasti, foreword by Thomas A. Sebeok. Indiana University Press. 1994. 368 pp. 4 b&w photos, 141 illus., bibl., index. ISBN 0-253-35649-0 (cloth).

This is the second in a projected series of monographs on musical semiotics to be published in the Advances in Semiotics series (the first was Hatten 1994). Eero Tarasti is a major figure in music semiotics, having already published an important monograph in the field (Tarasti 1979) and participated in collective research initiatives that have helped define a coherent set of goals for other workers (see, for example, Tarasti 1986). And as Thomas Sebeok demonstrates in his foreword, Tarasti is a central and founding figure in Finnish and Baltic semiotics, being instrumental in the creation and administration of both the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies, and the International Semiotics Institute at Imatra. In his Theory of Musical Semiotics, Tarasti provides an intensive synopsis of the field of musical narratology, exploring many of its theoretical subtleties in considerable depth. This is an area of research which has, until recently, been mostly unfamiliar to English-language readers, and an authoritative overview is most welcome.

Central to Tarasti's project is an attempt to map, systematically and term-by-term, Greimas's trajectory of narrative generation into a musical context. Subsidiary tools in this endeavour are a modified version of Georg von Wright's modal logic (Wright 1963), the intonational theory of Boris Asafiev (Asafiev 1977), and a somewhat idiosyncratic, but intriguing, interpretation of Peirce. The first section of the book systematically explains how these elements are related to each other, and the second provides extended and close readings of a few substantial musical examples. Tarasti hopes that his theory will illuminate the dynamic, processual, and emotional (modal) nature of music, in contrast to the static and reductionist spirit that has dominated much recent music analysis.

The first chapter presents a synopsis of the entire theory. Tarasti divides existing musical-semiotic studies into two categories; structuralist (characterized by a search for deep structures and minimal significant units) and iconic (characterized by a search for irreducible significant structures directly in the musical surface). Tarasti argues that neither approach can fully illuminate musical narrativity, and suggests a critical synthesis. From the structuralist camp he borrows the notion of isotopy as a foundation for his analysis of structural levels and formal features, and from the iconic camp he takes the energeticism of Ernst Kurth to be a key to understanding how actorality can be generated through these formal isotopies. For Tarasti, musical discourse is the musical surface. Tarasti sees this surface as the final step in a generative process analogous to Greimas's generative trajectory, and in order to prepare for a detailed examination of this trajectory, he presents two preliminary goals: (i) to enumerate the models and forces that guide the formation of the musical discourse; (ii) to introduce a formalism that can faithfully describe the dynamic nature of this process.

Tarasti divides the musical discourse into two levels, manifest and immanent. Influencing the manifest level are the technological models (technical means of constructing a musical surface) and the ideological models (broader social habits that affix value to that surface). Influencing the immanent level are structures of communication (sets of stylistic norms and expectations) and structures of signification (more idiosyncratic and personally-expressive forms). The ongoing negotiation between these models produces a musical surface and invests it with dynamism and expressivity. The formalism which Tarasti introduces is a system of modal logic. He adds some new symbols to Wright's (1963) basic kernel (pTq) to express expectation (both frustrated and fulfilled), alternate possibilities (arguing that the full importance of elements in absentia has generally been ignored by music theorists), and memory (distinguishing progression and retrogression). This expansion allows Tarasti to suggest three possible courses for a theory of dynamism and modality: (i) to explore the process of change, 'T', in its own right; (ii) to explore the individual events, 'p' and 'q'; (iii) to examine "the entrance of a subject which connects modal elements to a fundamental narrative formula." (p. 22). Adopting Greimas's terminology, Tarasti argues that the event Fm(x, y) "fulfills the minimal conditions for any musical event or action" (p. 22).

With this assertion, Tarasti has arrived at the core of his argument, and proceeds to say in what sense music might be considered narrative. Two decisions which will decisively influence the course of his argument are made clear at this point . Firstly, Tarasti chooses to look for narrative generation in "abstract, nonprogrammatic music" (p. 25), disciplining himself to define the elements of the narrative trajectory without recourse to extra-musical elements. Secondly, he argues that modalized and significant structures are present at all levels, from the surface (discourse) to the deep, achronic background (represented by the semiotic square), and that their generation must be accounted for as carefully as the parallel syntactic generation. He further argues that this kind of deep modality is exactly what Ernst Kurth and Boris Asafiev were attempting to formulate, although they never succeeded in doing so explicitly (p. 28).

Tarasti begins to map out the specifics of his narratology by noting how musical processes of tension and release can be given modal interpretations. He examines the generative model of Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1985), showing how their formal hierarchies can be interpreted as enacting 'will' (the dominance of one element over another) and 'must' (the perspective of the subordinated unit). He further specifies musical equivalents for the modalities of 'being' and 'doing' (initially in a way that makes them nearly identical to the classical notions of paradigm and syntagm).

Having thus outlined the core of a narrative logic, and having shown how modalities might exist in musical structures, Tarasti argues that narrative structures are not always evident on the musical surface, but emerge under certain circumstances. He considers the case of a syntactic (normally non-narrative) feature being made pertinent through marking by other features, and the case of syntactic rules being deliberately broken. The issue here is the relationship between narrative and non-narrative musical features, and in order to make the comparison, a general concept of 'musical feature' needs to be found. Although Tarasti does not explicitly develop such a concept, all musical features in the discussion, from the concrete (e.g., a particular accompaniment figure) to the more abstract (e.g., a dissonance prolonged in the middleground), are presented as instances of isotopies. Isotopy, then, becomes the general term for any kind of musical structure, and along with the modalities yields a powerful vocabulary for unifying the discussion of various levels of musical meaning. Tarasti divides all musical isotopies into three categories - spatial, temporal, and actorial - organized in a generative trajectory, from achronic spatial background to kinetic actorial foreground.

Tarasti's basic interest is in showing how the isotopies, modalities, and the overall narrative trajectory are realized in absolute, nonprogrammatic music, through an entity he calls the 'thematic actant'. The modalities of the thematic actant can be correlated to musical features and events as follows: will = kinetic energy, the inclination of the music to move forwards; know = the sounding elements themselves, in so far as they introduce new information; be = the simple, consonant, non-actorial presence of a musical element; must = the state of an element which is modalized by another; can = an element's ability to modalize another; do = an actual musical event, a tension or desire to move.

With this, all of Greimas's original modalities (vouloir, savoir, être, devoir, pouvoir, faire) have been given strictly musical interpretations. The close examination of how these modalities are expressed on each of the three isotopic levels (spatial, temporal, and actorial) forms the core of Tarasti's mode of analysis. Pages 47 to 54 present a condensed synopsis of the entire theory.

Quite separately from the main line of argument, Tarasti closes this first chapter with a brief outline of his use of the Peircian trichotomies. He situates them in a three- dimensional model, consisting of the generative process (legisigns, qualisigns, sinsigns), the work itself (icons, indices, and symbols), and events in the consciousness of the listener (rhemes, dicents, and arguments). He suggests that all of these signs can have interpretants that direct our attention to extra-musical elements (exteroceptive) or to relationships within the music itself (interoceptive). As always, his interest remains with interoceptive readings, and he suggests interoceptive interpretations of iconicity (internal similarity and repetition), indexicality (a factor encouraging continuity, impelling one musical element to move to the next) and symbolicity (abstract relations that allude to broader musical schema, beyond the specific musical substance).

The three final theoretical chapters explore each of the three types of musical isotopy in depth. The first argues that the category of temporality is foundational to all other musical categories. In it Tarasti works out a thorough projection of the categories predictable/unpredictable and reversible/irreversible, and then considers various semiotic perspectives on the enterprise of music history, including a model of the process whereby new intonations can germinate, come to prominence, and then recede into disuse. The chapter on musical spatiality distinguishes inner (harmonic) and outer (registral) spaces, carefully mapping their dimensions (before/after, up/down, in-front/behind, centre/surround). The centerpiece of this chapter is a chart showing all of the combinations of 'be' and 'do' in combination with 'must', 'will', 'can', and 'know', projected onto semiotic squares and given musical interpretations with respect to both space and time (pp. 86-94). This single chapter, more than any other, presents Tarasti's categories as he tends to use them in analysis. The chapter on musical actors is noteworthy in its careful consideration of the work of Ernst Kurth, which Tarasti argues will someday be seen to be as important as that of Schenker (p. 98). This final theoretical chapter makes plain one of the most significant implications of Tarasti's argument; the signified in absolute music is a play of tensions and modalities, an abstract configuration of energies and spatial situations. Although he frequently concedes the importance of prior knowledge, habit, expectation, and similar factors in musical experience, Tarasti does not include them as determining factors, and consequently they remain tangential to the entire generation of musical narrative. In effect, this view of absolute music makes the signified seem almost identical to (a mode of) the basic means of signification.

In the second part of the book, Tarasti uses his theoretical model to produce some close readings of substantial passages from Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Musorgsky, Sibelius, Debussy, and the Minimalist movement, and it is in the mutual dependencies between the theory and this particular musical context that critical issues of the theory's ultimate purpose, strengths, and deficits come to the forefront. Tarasti does not so much present us with a general theory of musical semiotics as with a narratology of western European concert music. This is the case not only in terms of the repertoire he considers, but also in some of the basic assumptions and categories of the theory. Some of these assumptions are the following; (i) The theory requires a listener to be present for the modal potential of the music to be realized, but it is assumed that this agency can be represented adequately by a hypothetical 'competent listener' who will be expected to have very particular views and habits (p. 50); (ii) Both simple 'being' and excess repetition of familiar intonations lead to an uninteresting, aesthetically-inferior music (p. 46); (iii) Modalizing influences such as performance style can affect musical meaning, but music is also capable of generating a narrative program on its own terms, independent of these other factors (pp. 38, 109); (iv) Historically, musical actorality appeared in tandem with the symmetrical, two-measure phrase group, as a phase "in the development of European rationality," and the earlier polyphonic art is a "counterforce to actorality" (p. 104); (v) Listeners, because of their conservative expectations, tend to stifle the creative drive of composers (p. 71); (vi) Ideological and technological models can be separated, making it possible to "manipulate musical structures as pure sign systems" without ideological content (p. 17).

These are points where Tarasti takes sides on questions that could allow several valid viewpoints, without thoroughly discussing options. To a degree, this is necessary and justified given the task of faithfully mapping the narrative trajectory into a particular genre. This list of assumptions could also serve as an enumeration of some typical attitudes in classic music aesthetics, and the theory's uncritical adherence to such assumptions could be seen as faithfulness to the source material. Similarly, certain limitations in the theoretical underpinnings - such as selecting certain modalities as essential and remaining completely silent with respect to others (compare Tarasti's collection of modalities to the collection of sentic forms in Clynes 1978) - are motivated by the task of faithfully mapping Greimas's own categories and trajectory. To the extent that these kinds of ideological poses are justified by the source material, they are probably a strength, and Tarasti is frequently willing to point out that he is at times adhering to a dogma (pp. xv, 106).


Asafiev, Boris (1977) Musical Form as a Process. 3 volumes. Translation and commentary by J.R. Tull. Dissertation, Ohio State University.

Clynes, Manfred (1978) Sentics: The touch of emotions. New York: Anchor.

Hatten, Robert (1994) Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, correlation, and interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lauretis, Teresa de (1984) Alice Doesn't: Feminism, semiotics, cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lerdahl, Fred and Jackendoff, Ray (1985) A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Tarasti, Eero (1979) Myth and Music. The Hague: Mouton.

Tarasti, Eero and others (1986) "Basic concepts of studies in musical signification: A report on a new international research project in semiotics of music." The Semiotic Web, 1986: 405-581.

Wright, Georg Henrik von (1963) Norm and Action: A logical enquiry. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

William Echard is a doctoral student in musicology at York University, Toronto. He has a special interest in developing a dialogic synthesis of formal music analysis and semiotic reception theory. His Master's thesis was on stylistic strategies and identity politics in the work and reception of Stompin' Tom Connors, and he is currently pursuing a similar line of research with respect to the music of Neil Young.

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