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This review appeared in Volume 5 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

A Guidebook For Musical Semiotics

by David Lidov

Linguistics and Semiotics in Music. By Raymond Monelle. Contemporary Music Series, Vol. 5. Harwood Academic Publishers, Switzerland, 1992 ISBN 3-7186-5208-0.

This new handbook by Raymond Monelle of the Faculty of Music, University of Edinburgh should incite envy. So far as I know his compact but comprehensive and appreciative guide to musical semiotics has no counterpart for the semiotics of dance, painting, film, visual arts, theatre or (so far as I know) any other special subject outside, perhaps, verbal art. Indeed, the instructors of the "Problems and Methods in..." seminars may want to refer students to this volume even if the course topic is not music, for it shows what might be done elsewhere.

Musical semiotics comprises an already very large and very diverse literature; such a text as this has a substantial task to undertake. This book is not, like Goran Sonesson's treatise on visual semiotics, a highly personal synthesis and critique which presupposes a well instructed reader. Monelle has largely put his own views and his own voice in the background in what seems to be a disinterested act of pedagogical service to the beginner. But if that description suggests faceless pedantry or dullness masquerading as objectivity, then it is misleading. The survey is personal enough to elicit a personal engagement by the reader, and some of the sharpest and most helpful ideas in the book are, in fact the author's.

There are ten chapters and a brief epilogue. The first, which I will describe last, is an introduction. The second is a sweeping survey of Twentieth Century linguistic and structuralist theories: Saussure, Prague phonology, American linguistics (Sapir, Bloomfield, Harris), Hjelmslev, Chomsky, Levi-Strauss and Piaget. This is quite a bit of matter for a 27 page chapter. The abridgemnts make an easy target for criticism. But the task is appropriate to a book about music and skilfully executed. A colleague of mine reminded me once that any graduate history student worth his salt should be able to give a good course on the French Revolution and that it is when you want a course on the History of Western Civilization that you need a full professor. Summary is the first step towards synthesis, and we need more of it in semiotics.

Chapter 3, "Metalanguage, Segmentation and Repetition," reviews the problems which were initially articulated by Ruwet's adaptation of Harris's discovery procedures to musical score analysis (Ruwet 1966). Ruwet's critical insight was that repetition within single melodies and the recurrence of words across independent sentences of one language were structurally equivalent. This equivalence was the pivot for a far reaching critique of received music theory.

The fourth chapter returns from the structural analysis to philosophical perspectives. Nattiez (1975) adopted Ruwet's proposals to construct the "Neutral Level" of his tripartite scheme of signs Nattiez' semiotics is founded on the premise that any description or interpretation of a sign is biased either toward its production or towards its reception but that critical awareness allows us to project an explicitly constructed neutral level which represents the "physical" trace of the sign as if it were autonomous from its context of production and reception. Monelle situates Nattiez' contribution in the most helpful framework I have encountered.

Chomsky's sphere of influence in musicology is reflected in Chapter 5, which encompasses (inter alia) both the fastidious formal generative system of Lehrdahl and Jackendoff (for European tonal, metrical music) and Blacking's affirmation of universal musicality as a somatic, more than intellectual, capacity or "competence". Like linguistics, musical semiotics has found much of its inspiration and some of its best applications in comparative studies. Chapter 6, which deals with these, allows us to review all of the methodological issues raised up to this point and also introduces some new ones via a review of semiotic work in ethnomusicology.

That we have waited until Chapter 7 to hear of Peirce accurately reflects the development of the discipline for music, but Monelle corrals a rich collection of studies and probes them deeply enough to compensate for the delay. The principal concerns here are iconicism and indexicality, not simply in their contemporary constructions but with reference to the roles attributed to mimesis and expression in aesthetics through history. The discussion is wide-ranging and well informed enough to include, e.g., Gombrich. As for music, the writings of Osmond-Smith (1972), which may be less familiar to a American musicologists than Wilson Coker's (1972) take center stage. As background to the musical discussion Monelle provides substantial reviews of Morris' and Eco's relevant writings. Unfortunately, I can not assess any of this objectively, having contracted an apparently intractable allergy to sign classification as icons and indexes during earlier expeditions; however, I found a healing balm in the chapter's last section where Monelle, speaking for himself, adroitly puts to rest the tiresome question about the status of scores and performances vis-a-vis "the music". One is, obviously, the legisign, the other the sinsign. l regret that we don't hear more from Monelle on the musical interpretant.

The last three chapters have an increasingly exploratory character. Chapter 8 is entitled "Semantics and Narrative Grammar." It was a surprise to me to see my own rather rigidly structuralist Beethoven study reviewed under this head. The justification for this requires that we acquiesce (as Monelle apparently does) in the unfortunate failure of semiotic scholars - showed by Greimas - to distinguish between narratives and arguments. For the record, the parts of an argument, in the modern sense of the term, have a necessary logical order but not a necessary temporal order. This is actually very important for music. It is pointless to regard any music as like narrative unless we see that some other music is not like narrative, and behind that opposition lie the all important alternatives that musical time can represent or not represent external time.

But not to quarrel, this chapter is the longest of the book and one of the richest and more than any other conveys the state of the art. Monelle takes note of Power's important, but I think recently neglected, application of structural semantics to Indian ragas (1976). The chapter also exhibits the diverse fruits which Tarasti and Monelle himself have harvested from the orchards of Greimas. These are quite different. Tarasti's starting point is the mythology of Levi-Strauss and his reinterpretation of mythology in terms of Greimassian narrative theory leads to a richly structured analysis. Monelle's own interpretation of Wagner is closer to Powers in methodology only its springboard is not Lyon's structural semantics but the elaborate apparatus of the Paris school's semantic system. Monelle does not limit his interpretations, as Powers does, to interior references to the modal system itself, but is able to ascribe hierarchies of ideas to Wagner's composition. Interwoven with the foregoing is a very compelling summary of the work of Greimas himself which the musical theories borrow. Finally this chapter also deals with the remarkable synthesis of methods achieved in Robert Hatten's analyses of Beethoven's style. At the time of writing, Hatten's full length study (1993) was not yet in press, but the earlier papers from which Monelle worked provide a good preview. Hatten has integrated an extended theory of markedness, derived from Shapiro, with the historical musicological theory of "topics" developed by Leonard Ratner and the literary theory of tropes. The result is a structurally and historically grounded description of some of Beethoven's major works in terms of sequences of concepts of feeling which they represent.

Chapter Nine is a real gift to the profession, for it provides a substantial account of Assavief's musical theory of "intonation". His was the dominant voice of Soviet musicology. The term intonation has to do with what we call "tone of voice" rather than what "intonation" means to orchestral musicians, and the theory is highly elaborate. Because his authority was institutionally enforced for so many decades, many young scholars from the East are now hastening to put him behind, but we in the West have been ignorant of his work and he has much to suggest to us. Marta Grabocz is one musicologist who has drawn consequences from Assavief and also elaborated a mode of narrative interpretation for music based on Greimassian theory. Monelle considers her writings here and, more surprisingly, those of Phillip Tagg whose topics are drawn from popular music studies. While Tagg makes no reference to Assavief, a persuasive rational for the alliance is presented which makes the work of both seem more pregnant.

Chapter Ten, which has more to propose to musicology than to report from it, is devoted to Derrida and deconstruction. Monelle finds much in music criticism which is ripe for reinterpretation in Derridean terms, but I hesitate to paraphrase the interesting speculations and experiments of this essay.

Now back to the beginning. Monelle introduces his topic with a panoramic review of theories about music's domain and manner of meaning. He accords some welcome emphasis to Rameau at the start and proceeds to discuss a range of authors that includes musicologists, linguists, philosophers and literary critics. Then comes the inescapable question, how is semiotics different from any of this? Unfortunately, he identifies musical semiotics as a study or collection of studies which differ from received musicology not in the questions they pose but in the scientific rigor with which they are addressed.

If he's right, I fear we shall all hang. There seems to me to be about as much rigor- in the fashions of the day - in the papers of young semioticians as there always has been - in the fashion of their days - in the work of young musicologists with other scholastic directions. But in humanistic scholarship, rigor is rarely good for much except getting dissertations done and approved. We really want insight. Rigor and insight give each other but little support and don't seem particularly happy to keep company.

What then, is musical semiotics? Of course, we might very reasonably suggest that the problem, what the identity of musical semiotics is, is incapable of solution, that musical semiotics has no unity and distinctiveness within musical studies. First of all, putting my own allegiance aside, no reader should be expected to presume without argument that all music is primarily a sign, and this is not an arena of argument that Monelle engages. Secondly, it is too late in the day to pretend that semiotics is clearly a distinct and unified discipline unless one is prepared to defend a particular theory about what it is. (Monelle is not.) Musical semiotics is a hodge-podge when taken on its own.

Implicitly, the book itself suggests some other answers. There is a suggestive proposal in his Peirce discussion where Monelle characterizes criticism as "seeming argument". Surely, we are dealing with criticism here, not science. As Monelle's volume demonstrates very well, the effect of semiotic research on musicology is very distinctive. In musicology as in other "ologies," semiotics has challenged institutionally ensconced attitudes. (though whether semiotics is the chicken or the egg might be hard to say.)

The distinctiveness of the musicological version of this scenario is a resultant of the peculiar stance musicology had adopted by the sixties with its radical segregation of structural and aesthetic issues in the West, especially the theoretic straightjacket of the idea of "absolute music" and with other methodological rigidities in eastern Europe.

I am a bit nervous that Monelle's presentation may be too smooth. Mapping the large terrain that he reviews in just 350 pages he must change topics rapidly. Sometimes his bridges are genuine discoveries of unity, as when Tagg is made to march with Assavief, but sometimes literary elegance stands in for a deeper logic, as when Blacking's notion of "competence", though derived from Chomsky's in inspiration, is allowed to seem more than a poetic extension of it. Sometimes I am a little unsure in this book where paraphrase ends and critical commentary takes over. If this is a fault of the book and not, as it may be, of my reading, it is a minor one, for nothing in this volume should encourage the reader to employ the book as a pony instead of as a guide to the literature. l recommend it not only to scholars of music but especially to scholars of dance who have similar problems with less to draw on and to scholars of aesthetics and semiotics who want to know more about their musical affiliations. There is relatively little in the exposition which demands advanced skills in music theory to be understood though those who know will get extra messages.


Coker, Wilson (1972) Music and Meaning: a Theoretical Introduction to Musical Aesthetics. New York: Collier- Macmillan.

Harris, Zellig S (1951) Methods in Structural Linguistics. Chicago: Chicago Univ.Press.

Lyons, John (1963) Structural Semantics, an Analysis of Part of the Vocabulary of Plato. Oxford: Blackwell.

Monelle, Raymond (1989) "Music and Notation and the Poetic Foot." The Music Review, 31/1,70-81.

Osmond-Smith, David (1972) "The Iconic process in musical communication." Versus 3,31-42.

Powers, Harold S (1976) "The Structure of Musical Meaning: a view from Banaras." Perspectives of New Music 14/2 - 15/1,308-334.

Ruwet, Nicolas (1966) "Méthodes d'analyse en musicologie." Revue Belge de Musicologie, 20, 65-90.

--- (1975) "Théorie et méthodes dans les études musicales." Musique en Jeu, 17, 11-35.

David Lidov is Professor of Music at York University (Faculty of Fine Arts) and a Section editor for SRB. He is the author of numerous articles on the semiotics of music including the article "Music" in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics (1986).

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