Friday, February 18, 2011

Musemes and layers of signification

Permit me an idle musing. I need to think something out and sometimes that works better in text. Oh, and that's musemes not museums.

I have a stack of books on my desk relating to semiotics, music and musical discourse. I don't expect them to be of any use other than to establish how my approach differs from the majority of semiotic approach to music. At least that's what I'm hoping and it should (should) be fairly straight forward: they all seem interested in explaining how the sound of music has meaning like a language. My baseline (bassline? forgive the pun) response to this is that music is analogous to language, but only analogous, but I won't go into that right now. Bohlman and Cook have discussed this better than I shall. But before we even get to that, my approach differs in what mode (in the linguistic not musical sense) of music I'm looking at, because I'm interested in the semiotics of music as it relates to written music. (That's the problem with the word 'music' - it is at once an audio experience, a participatory experience, a recording, written directions for playing music and a whole host of other things.) For the purposes of my study into academic student writing, I'm trying to relate the meaning in the words to the meaning of the music notation incorporated in the texts.

The reading that has prompted this blog mentions a term used by Seeger and Tagg: musemes - musical morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning; so 'hat' is one morpheme, but 'hats' has two morphemes - one for 'hat' and 's' to indicate plurality. So a museme is the smallest unit of musical sense. Now I haven't read much further to understand just what they mean by this, though I understand it to involve intonations, intervals and so on. However it made me think - my problem with thinking about the semiotics of music from a traditional saussurian sense is that it's very difficult to identify the smallest unit of musical sense.

One might suggest the smallest unit of musical sense is a single note. Take for example the following note:
Let us assume there is a treble clef preceding this note at some point. The note would therefore be an F. Or more precisely, its pitch would be F. This is not the only meaning realised in this representation. By its colour and shape, we also identify it as a crotchet, or quarter-note, which means that it should be played for the duration of a single beat. Just as 'hats' had two morphemes, so this single note has two meanings - pitch and note value.* So far so simple.

Within a real context however, these notes do not occur in isolation, just as words in a language do not occur in isolation. I come from a school of linguistics which insists that language be studied in real world contexts, or more specifically, texts. And so if we put the note in a context we might find something like this:

Let us specify our F to be on the first beat in bar 6. Our friendly F which in isolation had two layers of meaning - pitch and note value - now has several other layers of meaning that an analyst may comment on. It has intervallic relation with the notes which precede and follow it: it is the same note as the four preceding it, and is then followed by a B natural. When I tried to clarify this interval with my brother without giving him the context he wrote '"Tritone" augmented 4th or diminished 5th'.  Despite this sequentiality, it would not be played in isolation and thus has a scale degree of a flat 7 to the chord played by other parts and indicated in the notation by the G7 written over the stave. I introduced this note as being on the first beat of bar 6 - thus we find added rhythmic, intonation and contextual information. Rhythmic, as it is the first beat of four-beat bar; intonation, as the first beat in four-four rhythm is habitually emphasised; and contextual as we note where it comes within the context of the whole piece. I haven't even mentioned yet that this piece is a broadway tune and also a jazz standard, or on what instrument it is played.

And so we find layers of signification occuring with a single note. What is the smallest unit of meaning? And how are some of these qualities indicated? An educated musician would be able to identify all of these qualities and even more just by looking at the piece of music and yet how precisely can we pinpoint how this information is conveyed? By spatial layout as well as contextual generic knowledge?

And that's why I feel the approach of multimodal, or multisemiotic, analysis, stemming as it does from Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), is useful. SFL takes a multifunctional, stratified approach to language, understanding the same text to have experiential (relating to the world of experience, content), interpersonal (relating to the relations between reader and writer, or speaker and listener, or composer and performer and analyst) and textual (relating to the construction of the text as a whole) meanings simultaneously.

Now I just have to write a dissertation about it and explain it more academically.

*Disclaimer: I should check all my music terminology with a musicologist/musician before I publish them, but for the purpose of the blog just go with me and let me know if I've severely misrepresented.

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