The Web Of Meaning


In my previous post, I mentioned two important parts to every communication: the signifier, and the signified. The signifier (or "sign," if you prefer) is an object that means something--what that "something" actually is, is known as "the signified." The example we used was the word "Tree," which to English-speaking readers will convey certain (hopefully but not necessarily) tree-like images. The word "Tree" was the signifier, and "tree-ness" was what is signified.

Modern theorists tell us that meaning is created only in the recipient of the message, and thus the exact nature of the "signified" can be a little elusive. Instead of making assertions like "signifier X means signified Y" modern theorists tend to identify the signifiers, and associate their significance with cultural or demographic groups. In this way, certain musical elements, styles, or techniques, can be associated with the culture as a whole.

In this sense, musical signifiers are indexed to a particular place in culture. This seems obvious, as we all know certain demographics tend to favor certain types of music. Certain situations seem to require certain types of music. Whether we realize it or not, as a society we can create meaning from various signifiers and "index" ideas based on our interpretation.

That's it, Really?

I'd encourage fellow musicians to look a bit deeper. We know there's more to it than that--and there is.

The theory I outlined above is missing one thing--the ability of music to relate to other musics. When I play a musical idea (creating a message, or a musical signifier), there's a potential for my listener to decode the message in a way that allows them to associate that signifier with a musical signified. This happens when someone hears an idea from a piece and says, "that sounds just like something I heard in this other piece!"

In other words, instead of the communication chain being merely "music talks about nothing" or even "music talks about culture," we can assert that "music talks about music." This is convincing because we can show how, in the musical score, composers are using ideas that may have been intended to reference other musical ideas. The ability of a listener or musician to understand these associations is critical to the proper understanding of music.

Music Talks About Music

The figure below shows how musical signifiers can be interpreted in terms of its place in culture (class, socioeconomic, emotional, etc) but how it also can be interpreted in terms of how it relates to other musics.

In other words, every musical signifier can relate in some way to every other piece of music known by the listener. Lovers of music bring to the interpretive/decoding experience a sophisticated vocabulary of musical ideas against which new signifiers are evaluated and interpreted. We may not be able to judge what they hear or how they value a particular signifier, but we can somewhat objectively express how a musical signifier can relate to other musical signifiers in a particular body of repertoire.

This isn't to say the "music-in-culture" folks are wrong in any way, but it does suggest that the "music talks about music" conversation is less speculative and perhaps even more meaningful.

In the diagram below, I'm illustrating possible "indexing" that may take place between a musical idea and various elements in society/culture. As we've discussed, every aspect of a musical composition consists of various signifiers, and the interpreter is free to associate or index these as they see fit. I have a few possible dimensions listed (Race, Class, etc.) listed, but understand these aren't authoritative.

I've shown that the correlation between music-and-music is fairly strong (solid black line) but possibly less so in other areas by using a light grey line. The double-ended arrows show that social indexing of musical signifiers is usually a two-way street (exegesis vs. eisegsis?) in constructing social meaning. The single, dark arrow suggests that music can refer to other musics, whether we realize it or not:

Music Talks About Music Talking About Music

Each musical signifier relates in some way to other musical signifiers. These signifiers in turn, relate to other musical signifiers.

This is where the discussion gets very interesting, for these associations form a "chain of signification" that extends inifinitely in all directions. I may hear a particular musical idea that reminds me of another musical idea I've once heard, and that idea itself may remind me of another, and so on.

Each idea may have its own cultural associations as well, which creates a complex web of associations and possibilities:

Again, we see musical ideas referencing (or signifying) other musical ideas, and at any point in this web of association, we may find different types of indexing within a culture.

Summary, New Directions

Given the two-part nature of every piece of music (signifier vs. signified), we've discovered that musical signifiers can be associated with, or indexed to, particular subgroups within cultures. We've also learned that music can also overty or subtly reference other musics, which goes a long way toward helping us understand how music works. In other words, music may "talk about" culture and society, but music may also "talk about" other music.

No heard music exists in a vacuum; each listener brings unique and shared experiences to the listening event, which influences how they will be able to understand or interpret the composition. One's a priori experiences and knowledge play a part in how meaning is constructed and understood.

As we proceed through out study, we'll continually revisit how meaning is created through musical communication. In doing so, we'll explore how the old warhorses like "Music is neutral" and "Everything is subjective" tend to implode under the weight of their own anti-intellectual assertions, which will allow us to see modern worship music in a different light.