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JMM 1, Fall 2003, section 5 — JMM book review

Tarasti, Eero. Signs of Music: A Guide to Musical Semiotics. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2002. 224 pages. (Approaches to Applied Semiotics; 3)
ISBN: 3-11-017226-7 hardcover
ISBN: 3-11-017227-5 paperback.

(Reviewed by Paulo C. Chagas)

5.1. Music and Meaning: The Emergence of a New Discipline

Musical semiotics is quickly establishing itself in the 21st century as an independent discipline, along with historical musicology. The growing importance of this field of investigation, which concerns itself both with theory and analysis, can be explained in the light of different developments. The changing of our musical understanding plays an important role. Since music became a product of technical reproduction, pieces of different historical periods are more readily accessible to us as listeners, and the musical experience of the past is continuously being recreated by new interpretations, which update the "meaning" of individual works and musical styles.

Our enthusiasm regarding music history proves that there are still things to be discovered in the works from the Middle Ages and on through the late 20th century. The tradition is still not yet digested, so to speak. With each new interpretation, new musical experience in the concert hall or hearing of a CD, moreover, the question of musical meaning emerges: not only in terms of the understanding of individual pieces - how they were composed at a particular time and what kind of aesthetics they represent - but also as a question about the significance of current musical communication and the values that are mediated in this process. We experience not only the presence of musical tradition, but also of other phenomena: for example, the commercialization of musical production, the emergence of new forms of popular music related to technological media (techno, hip-hop, electronic, etc.) and the acceleration of the exchange between cultures in the global society, i.e. everything that today falls under the category "world music".

All such tendencies and developments can be the object of musical semiotics, the "study of music as a sign and as communication". This definition comes from (Tarasti 2002: v) the preface to the book Signs of Music: A Guide to Musical Semiotics by the Finnish musicologist Eero Tarasti, the third volume of the series "Approaches to Applied Semiotics", published by Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin. Tarasti, director of the Department of Musicology of the University of Helsinki, is one of the mentors of the International Project in Musical Signification, which was founded in 1985 in Paris and which has now been joined by more than 300 scholars worldwide.

Under the direction of Tarasti, the University of Helsinki offers an international program for doctoral and post-doctoral candidates in musical semiotics. In addition, it coordinates the research project "Musical Signification", with includes the organization of an annual international doctoral and post-doctoral seminar and the publication of the series Acta Semiotica Fennica in collaboration with the International Semiotics Institute in Imatra. This small Finish town near the Russian border hosts an annual summer seminar for semiotics and has twice organized the International Congress on Musical Signification (1986 and 2001).

5.2. Sign and Understanding

Signs of Music: A Guide to Musical Semiotics is a collection of essays and articles, through which Eero Tarasti gradually introduces the reader to the matter. The inviting and clear texts were written after the publication of Tarasti's Theory of Musical Semiotics (Indiana University Press, 1994). They include a commentated history of musical semiotics, an overview of new topics and areas of semiotic research being carried out by Tarasti himself and other authors, as well as some practical applications. By reading this book, one follows the process of emergence, development and diversification of a new discourse about music as a sign and as a communicative practice.

The book is divided into three parts. In the three chapters of the first part – "Music as a Sign" – Tarasti presents the foundations and perspectives of musical semiotics. It begins with two important references, the linguistics of the Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and the philosophy of the American Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914). Saussure developed a theory of language as a sign system whereby signs are to be understood as the relationship between signifier (sound) and signified (sense). In the phenomenology of Peirce, the sign is designated as a representamen which stands in relation to both an object and an interpretant. According to Peirce, signs can represent everything that we perceive and imagine.

Linguistics and structuralism shaped by the linguistics and semiotics of Peirce dominated the first steps of the research on music and signs in Europe and North America, which are commented upon in the first chapter. Tarasti's musical semiotics was at the beginning strongly influenced by the Lithuanian linguist A. J. Greimas (1917-1992) with whom he studied in Paris. An interesting part of this chapter concerns the question of the understanding / misunderstanding of musical signs. Tarasti postulates fourteen theses about processes of musical understanding in order to clarify the manifest relation between music and sign.

In the second chapter, Tarasti analyzes the development of music from the Renaissance to contemporary music from a semiotic perspective. The music of the Classical and Romantic eras receives special attention here, as is also the case in Tarasti's Theory of Musical Semiotics. Most examples come from the music of Beethoven, Wagner, Chopin, Mahler, Scriabin, Schumann, Berlioz, and other Romantic composers – and of course, also from the works of Sibelius, the most well-known Finnish composer.

Tarasti also shows how semiotic approaches are to be found in the thinking of traditional music scholars like the Austrian Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935), the Swiss Ernst Kurth (1886-1946), the German Hugo Riemann (1849-1919) and the Russian Boris V. Asafiev (1884-1948). He outlines the connections between historical musicology and semiotics and shows clearly how and why the question of musical meaning became so important. Finally, the chapter presents an historical overview of the current tendencies and issues of musical semiotics in the world, including references to authors and recent publications.

5.3. Music as a Situation

Until recently musical semiotics has followed the same path as general semiotics, trying to investigate musical signs by means of rules, norms and generalizing theories. Now the research tends toward another direction, toward the study of unique, individual phenomena, as Tarasti explains in the third chapter. He himself has been concerned with the question of situation, a philosophical notion which refers to Heidegger's concepts of Dasein and in-der-Welt-sein, e.g. in his previous book Existential Semiotics (Indiana University Press, 2001).

Music appears not as an object, but as a situation. Rather than a linear-syntagmatic, causal chain of musical objects or events, existential analysis considers music "as a compound situation comprised of many various elements" (Tarasti 2002: 70). A network of events replaces the linearity of the musical process, which distinguishes different forms of being. The notion of situation points to the whole of phenomena, objects and states of affairs through which emerges the conscience of an organism. Tarasti gives an example of the situation of sound as a combination of pitch, duration and timbre: "All these qualities exist in sound waves, but at the same time they are all components of one entity, the sound" (Tarasti 2002: 72).

The three aspects of the notion of situation – the word itself (Dasein), the organic process and the role of consciousness – are related to Peirce's triadic sign categories. They result in a triadic model for the analysis of the musical situation: (1) situation as a communication and meaning process; (2) situation as an action and event; (3) situation as intertextuality.

5.4. From Organic Music to Improvisation

After presenting the main lines and perspectives of the research field musical semiotics in the first part of Signs of Music, Eero Tarasti elaborates on some topics of his own semiotic thinking in the second and third parts.

In the second part he raises and analyses some aesthetic questions from a semiotic point of view. Questions such as: What is it that is "organic" in the music? How organic or inorganic are the symphonies of Sibelius and Mahler? What is a musical gesture? Which gestures and references to the body does the music of Chopin make? The semiotic investigations, which answer such questions, move through a subtle network of conceptions and references to classic authors of musicology (e.g. Dalhaus), philosophers (e.g. Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Husserl) or artists (e.g. Proust, Kandinsky). Tarasti is convincing not only through the connections he makes between different approaches and scientific domains, but also through the commentated examples from the music of Beethoven, Sibelius, Chopin, Strauss, Wagner, Mozart, Webern, Stravinsky, etc.

But musical semiotics does not deal exclusively with aesthetic subjects and analysis of works from the past. The third part of the book treats aspects of musical and social practice. An entire chapter is dedicated to the voice, dealing with subjects including the meaning of the individual voice as a sign of existence, the function of orality in music, singing as social and national identity, and the voice in relationship to genre and education.

The pluralistic thinking of Tarasti and the endeavor of musical semiotics to be an open and integrating science appear clearly in the last chapter on musical improvisation. The observations connect Richard Wagner's Meistersänger with the music of the Bororo Indians of Brazil. Tarasti mentions Umberto Eco, who divides semiotics into two areas: semiotics of communication and semiotics of signification. The former examines communication as a whole in all its dimensions. The latter examines the possibility of meaning and the structure of signs. Improvisation can be seen as a sign of an existential situation, which must be understood both as communication and a meaningful process.

With the concept of situation, Eero Tarasti emphasizes the human aspect in communication and moves away from objective models of semiotics. His new theory of existential semiotics "rejects a violent analysis that damages phenomenon (an ethical-moral principle); the universality of the phenomena consists of their being seen as something, and in some light; what is said or expressed may be less important than in what sense or mode it is said; as for temporality: the meaning grows denser over time, and is completed in the moment we know we have to give it up" (Tarasti 2002: 197).

5.5. Concluding Remarks

Signs of Music: A Guide to Musical Semiotics by Eero Tarasti is a book that fulfills its promise. It is motivating, both for those who approach this new discipline for the first time and for those who are already acquainted with the subject. The fascinating emerging field of musical semiotics is a manifold and complex discourse and meta-discourse about music and signs in relationship to aesthetics, history, composition, interpretation, communication, praxis, etc. Eero Tarasti combines scholarly accuracy with openness and offers here a basis for further developments.

Paulo C. Chagas





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JMM: The Journal of Music and Meaning

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