Manipulating Music


Within this blog I want to explore the semiotics of music and the way we attribute these meanings to music. This is an important question to consider as music is often used within socio-political contexts as a vehicle for power and mobilisation. Exploring how musical meaning can be seen as either a stable object or as a complex and fluid entity, allows us to understand how it comes to function within cultural environments.

In addressing the semiotics of music, the primary perspectives encountered fall between absolutism and referentialism. An absolutist perception of music would argue that music is a self-contained construction, it can be thought of, exist, and understood as and of itself. In general art theory it pertains that the art work can be enjoyed for the art itself, and transcends the context in which it exists (Cook 2000:74-75). Prominent in early 20th Century musicology, this implies meaning is intrinsic to the musical work and can be deciphered through analysis and study.

Alternatively music can be seen as referentialist, having meaning which can, and does, refer to things outside of itself. Music then becomes subject to it’s ecological, social and environmental setting. If we consider this in terms of Small’s Musicking; “…like all human encounters it takes place in a physical and social setting, and these, too, have to be taken into account when we ask what meanings are being generated by a performance”. This definition leaves musical meaning as a result of the conditions the music is experienced in. Music is not understood as a single object, but as a collection of elements (e.g. performers, languages, settings, and instruments). That is not to deny that a single record, score or instrument could not be seen as ‘music’, but that these would be a representation of music. In other words an icon for the whole to which they are a part.

Granted, the term music can be interpreted in many different ways, but it is precisely with the term ‘interpret’ it becomes evident that it is very difficult for us to give meaning to a subject or object in any way that is abstract from our culturally founded understandings and knowledge. Topic theory, as used by Agawu, is a series of musical conventions (such as patterns, styles and melodic figures) that are used when listening to music. As Agawu himself states however, these can only be used by listeners with a prior knowledge of the conventions (Agawu 1991). The listening experience is subjective from person to person.

The need to separate ‘musical meaning’, and ‘musical meaning for me’ is something prompted by Richard Scruton (Cook 2000:76). To say what ones personal associations to a musical piece is, is not necessarily to say anything of the piece’s character itself. For Scruton, this distinction is rarely, if ever, made by people. This is largely due to our engagement with music not being on a disinterested level. Interest in music is often due to it having a meaning for us (individually or collectively), rather than because of it’s own ontology.

Scruton recognised that “the metaphor cannot be eliminated from the description of music, because it defines the intentional object of the musical experience. Take the metaphor away and you cease to describe the experience of music” (Scruton 1997:92). In other words, it’s impossible to describe or attribute meaning to music without having a prior knowledge of those descriptive terms or meanings. We can only use the tools we have at our disposal, often language; which is itself a cultural construct. If music does exist in an absolute form, the challenge is not primarily obtaining the meaning per se, but translating that meaning into something (for want of a better word) meaningful to us. True autonomy in music is impossible, or at least, impossible for us to currently conceive of.

Within the political history of Zimbabwe, Turino explores the use of music and dance as a way of contributing towards the construction of nationhood (Turino 2008). Many rural tribes, each identifying with their own dance practice, came to be represented at Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) political rallies. Traditionally these dances functioned as a mode of participating in society, but placing these dances in a new context where they were presented alongside each other within a political environment, resulted in the dances taking on an additional meaning. One in which they came to ‘index’ these political ideologies. For Turino these musical practices achieved a “semantic snowballing component” (Turino 2008:146) whereby they “collect new associational meanings while retaining earlier associations” (ibid). Whilst maintaining their ability to stand for their original regions, they also came to stand for the ZAPU party, and for their ideologies; including the creation of a Zimbabwean nation.

Looking at semiology as explained by Saussure, there are two elements, the signifier and the signified (Sanders 2004). Here, the sign, music, is arbitrary. Saussure posed that there need not be any connection between these two elements. What then is seen as the connection is purely a result of a mental process of an individual or collective. Of course, these connections are subjective, and in line with this argument, rely on the ecological and environmental conditions in which they are used. With the Zimbabwean performances, these newly acquired meanings were powerful because they constructed a new reality in which Zimbabwe was uniting as a nation. Participating within these performances was still an act of regionally localised identity, but in addition, also became an act of support for ZAPU and a Zimbabwean nation. When acquiring a new significance, the act of participating in the music mirrored that change and acquired a new meaning.

Returning to Small’s musicking, and seeing music as a process, Joanna Hodge argues that an audience is an essential part of music (Cook 2000:76). Relating this to Saussure’s semiotics; the audience (or listener) is essential because an audience is necessary in order for the music to become a sign. It is only once there is an interpreter that the music is able to obtain any meaning, and be able to signify something. In Nooshin’s analysis of Iranian pop music, she notes the “fascinating area of study is music’s semiotic complexity and semantic richness, it’s capacity to simultaneously symbolise many things and to embody different meanings” (Nooshin 2005:262). This semiotic complexity is due to musical meaning being dependent on an interpretation, and interpreter, of which there are unlimited numbers.

The nature of musical meaning being fluid gives opportunity for political frameworks to utilise music. In altering the connections from which we gain an understanding of music, there is a window for altering the meaning of the music. In Zimbabwe, as the regional performances became increasingly associated with each other, they came to signify a greater body of performance. Mirroring this, as the regions became increasingly associated with each other, they came to represent a unified nation. Of course it would be too easy to say that music, and therefore musical meaning, could be controlled in this way. It can be manipulated, but in the same way that music is fluid and dependent on ecological factors, so too are people, and therefore their interpretations.

To conclude then, it is hard to give meaning to music if we are to think of it as autonomous. Meaning (fact or interpretation) is something that we cannot fully detract from our prior knowledge and cultural experiences. To consider music purely as an art form is itself a cultural construct, complexly woven between notions of aesthetics and class. An absolutist approach which ignores the relationships that forge musical meaning is unsustainable however to accept that is to accept a shadow over parts of the history of musicology. Our ability to understand music as being referential provides other opportunities for music to be utilised in social or political context, allowing us to (attempt to) manipulate the musical meaning. Cultural musicology adopting a more referentialist outlook of music does mark the discourse irrelevant, but instead poses questions on what analysis and study now enlightens us on.

Joanna Kalinowska


Agawu, Kofi 1991 Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classic MusicPrinceton University Press

Cook, Nicholas 2000 Music: A Short Introduction, Oxford University Press

Nooshin, Laudan. 2005 Subversion and Countersubversion: Power, control and meaning in the new Iranian pop music

Small, Christopher 1998 Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening University Press of New England

Sanders, Carol 2004 The Cambridge Companion to Saussure Cambridge University Press.

Turino, Door 2008 Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chapter 5: Participatory, Presentational, and High Fidelity Music in Zimbabwe Chicago University Press

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