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Sonic Semiotics

by | London, UK

Friday, 21 October 2011

tags: culture, europe, experts & agencies, making sense, semiotics, technology

I just decided I wanted to write something on sonic semiotics for Semionaut. This was triggered by attending the School Of Sound at the Barbican and a session dedicated to the use of sound design in animation. I have a stubborn interest in the semiotics of music and the extent to which music can be said to refer to outside itself.

As often when you hear creatives talk, the discourse is one of accidental sagacity, happy mishaps and serendipity. One of the sound designers, Mark Ashworth talked about using his baby girl's scream alongside guitar flares to create a sinister shriek.

Another experienced female designer talked about just using instinct in her work.

There was no mention of any codes or the other nomenclature that you might expect, to guide selection of element – this may have been the nature of the genre which is maybe more SFX based than scored. It did strike me however that the only times sonic motifs were mentioned (for example a crackling light bulb used as a transition motif or way of ending a scene) these were rather dismissed as just aural clichés

I was going to pipe up in the Q&A but I knew that any answers would cleave to the groove of haphazard felicity already ploughed in the discussion.

Of course I do not impugn their credentials. There was some great work on show. I guess they just rely on abductive instinct rather than any conscious selection from pre-existing sound typologies. As a broker between underlying meaning and creative expression couldn’t semiotics play a role in making tricks of the trade more explicit?

Theorizing what these people were doing might have seemed limiting, and somehow a repudiation of creative ingenuity. Is this a natural antipathy to anything to do with book learning or because it is seen as superfluous, i.e, as 'teaching fish to swim'?

It’s ironic though that one of the issues touched on was a lament there is no common lexicon to discuss the feeling film directors want and the sonic effect that could create this feeling. The trial and error rapport built up between director and sound designer no doubt works, but i wondered whether a sonic semiotic crib might have helped here.

I believe it was Elvis Costello who once said that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. Stravinsky famously denied the possibility of music having any real meaning and Umberto Eco declared the music only carries denotations rather than connotations – one of the least sage things he ever wrote in my humble opinion.

So what has semiotics to say about music? Well, quite a lot as it happens. There is a rich canon of work looking at Romantic-Classical music tracing themes for instance of Faustian self-questioning in Liszt piano works or anti-Stalinist ironies Shostakovich symphonies. Finnish professor Eero Tarasti has written a book on the Semiotics of Music drawing on both Peirce and Greimas. His main theme is narrativity through harmonic tension, and he ascribes an existential will to the unfolding piece of music.

Authors such as Lidov, Nattiez and others have also written on this subject. Many of these works centre around the notion of a musical subject nestled in a ‘sonorous envelope’. Naomi Cumming’s book the Sonic Self posits a classification of musical signs via Peirce: timbre and the grain of sound linked to Peircean qualisigns, gesture  and melodic ornaments and figures of expression to sinsigns, with more syntactic tonal processes governed by harmonic rules as legisigns suggesting desire. These are all seen as iconic in the Peircean sense and are linked back to music as an expression of human gesture. Rebecca Leydon has written a fascinating paper on a series of tropes applied to minimalist music such as that of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, distinguished by uses of repetition technically known as ostinati, therefore containing less harmonic unfolding. These include ‘totalitarian’ and ‘aphasic’ tropes.

One of my personal heroes in this area is musicologist Philip Tagg who has extended serious semiotics to popular music; it is refreshing to read a forthright Yorkshireman mention semiotics, the Clash and Aeolian triads without having to apologize to his readers. Tagg takes musicology to task writing: “musicology has tended to steer clear of viewing music as a symbolic system whose structures are considered as either references to or as interpretations, reflections, reconstructions…of experiences which are not necessarily intrinsically musical”. Tagg does great work in surveying a broad range of music from jazz through rock and punk to techno and looking for musemes or minimum units of meaning of units. One of these would be the Aeolian triad which is traditionally a signifier of mourning, yearning or existential dread. Semiotics has really added to the canon since books like Cooke’s seminal The Language of Music.

I co-authored an ESOMAR conference paper on the semiotics of sound and music in advertising in 2006 and argued then that not enough attention was being paid to sound design as a strategic brand building tool and that it was still an afterthought in too many creative development schedules. In the paper, (written with Alex Gordon of Sign Salad) we bracketed off the idea of subjective experience and somatic markers. We then put forward a rough model of sonic semiotic affect on listeners based on musical encoding (universal kinetic properties from a social psychology view) and cultural encoding (broadly social semiotic, though not explicitly so) and argued that a more explicit attempt to score and compose according to this framework could help sensitize brand owners to the possibilities for managing meaning in sonic branding rather than surrendering to the lure of likeability or a despair of complete subjectivity.

Even though there has been no ‘final theory’ of music, what is commendable is the fact that semioticians continue to work to bring more sophisticated understanding to such an ineffable phenomenon. Semiotics brings the meaning that social psychology musicology and other fields lack. I am keen to promote greater interest in this area.

© Chris Arning  2011

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