Music Fix: The potential of conceptual codification in music. Part I.



Semiotic systems are fascinating because of their sheer complexity. They surround us almost every second of our life and more often than not we are so used to them that we don’t see them anymore. Sometimes, however, it is nice to press the pause button and think about all the ways we, and all the other humans, are desperately understanding or trying to do so. Sometimes things just make sense, sometimes you need to interpret in a different way, see things from a different angle.

Let’s take an easy example: spoken and written language. Already as toddlers, one of the most important things we learn is how to express our needs and how to communicate with others to live in society. After decades of practicing speech, it seems so intuitive that we take it for granted. If however, you find yourself working with people who speak another language than the one(s) you master, you (obviously) can’t make sense of what they are saying. That’s when you start looking at other signs (gestures, facial expression, intensity of the voice, rhythm of the speaking flow, etc.). These ‘other’ semiotic systems can be very important too.

So, even though language is the most used system for tagging and labelling (i.e. creating terms) our surroundings, gestures, for instance, can reinforce the meaning of mere words or add a subtle layer of meaning, if interpreted by the audience as intended. If gestures are interpreted differently, the results can have an impact on the conversation, which may get humorous or awkward. Therefore, identifying and interpreting signs is of a paramount importance, not only in conversations, but also in a lot of activities.

Identification and interpretation are also key aspects in music, since music is one of the easiest (or most difficult) ways of conveying feelings. Listening to a song and telling whether it is a “happy” or a “sad” song is rather easy. Starting from kindergarten, children are asked to tag songs in a Manichean way which is a great way of doing abstract conceptualisation at a young age. Concepts can thus be expressed and generally recognised in music. In fact, a lot of composers actually tried to express a wide range of very diverse concepts in a musical way. So, are there quasi-universal musical means of expressing feelings or associating music to particular concepts?


As this article concludes, “music does have the power to evoke deep primal feelings at the core of the shared human experience”. Most composers did not only depict feelings, but also concepts – or impressions related to concepts – which are more ‘down to the ground’. Such compositions are called “program music”. There is a seemingly endless array of

choice for choosing concepts. There are for instance the animals of Saint-Saëns or the animals of Prokofiev, idyllic scenes of Beethoven, the seasons of Vivaldi or even planets of Holst. Those were some of the best known and most representative examples in orchestral music. There are quite extensive lists of program music on the Internet, like this one.

The next two articles will try to engage more closely with aspects of music that can help to establish a relation to concepts and terminology by applying the theory of intertextuality because every note (just like every word) has already been played at some time, the question is how you arrange them.

(Read Part II here and Part III here)


Written by Amaury Neumann

Study Visitor at TermCoord