Music – a Systemic/Functional semiotic approach

Posted by jerry on May 15th, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Music, Theory

Music – a Systemic Functional Approach

Some years ago, when studying under Michael O’Toole at Murdoch University, I began experimenting with some thoughts on applying MAK Halliday’s systemic functional semiotics to music. To my knowledge, even 20 years later no-one else has sketched out such a schema. So, with some trepidation I thought I’d dig out that early naive schema and seek views on whether such a schema might still be useful as a point of entry into musical semiotics, and as a means of finding a language with which to deal with extra-linguistic artistic works. All that remains of that original lecture is the diagram that I developed and which I will lay out below. Then I’ll try to reconstruct a pathway by way of explanation for each element of the schema.

Music – a semiotic schema






(Ideological base)


i)Form (eg Classical)
ii)Ornament (eg baroque)
iii) Sense (eg romantic)
WORK Type of orchestration/Intertextuality Modality
– fantasy
as expressed by:
-‘weight’ etc
eg song/folk dance/tonepoem/sonata/etc

Interplay of
i)thematic structure
eg: statement, recapitulation,cadence (ending), conjunction

eg slow movement

eg -major
-pentatonic etc



Textual coherence :
-interplay of theme
-to different key
-to different mode
-tonal ambiguities

(Verbal group)



Contrast options:
-dynamic range(loud/soft)


(nominal group)

Play of figures
(nominal ‘characters’)

relation to hearer – ‘gaze’
-pointers to key tonality
-line (melodic sequence)

Tonal qualifiers – flat 5ths/7ths etc

Key statement

Cadences (endings)


Lexical content
recognisable figures

recurrent patterns

Lexical Register:
Modified motifs:
-changed mode
-changed key
-changed rhythm
-position in theme
-posn in movement
-posn in Work


Basic unit of information:


degree of scale:


high/low (pich)
chord/single note

Position in harmonic series





Much of this is self-explanatory, and has to do with the orientation of the music to the listener and to the culture into which it is inserted. Like all modes of signification, music has context, and a relationship to that context, whether to music history, or to style, or to genre. Each individual work is made up of elements each with their defining characteristics such as relationship to the key, voicing, sound/silence oppositions and so on.

The object here is to develop a way of talking about non-linguistic artistic texts in a schema that is relatively independent of a formal knowledge of music. That is, to try to come up with a descriptive semiotics of music by observing how it is structured, and how it functions within the culture.

I welcome suggestions on how I might develop this crude model further. In the meantime, I thought that after 20 years it is high time it got some wider exposure. If you use it, please acknowledge the source, but otherwise feel free to use and modify as you see fit.

And I welcome comments.



Electric fiddle – modified

Posted by jerry on April 25th, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Music, Woodwork

Many of you will know that when we were in China I bought an electric violin – a fine piece of Guangzhou engineering – great sound for recording, but tiring to play for any length of time because it’s quite a bit heavier than a normal violin.

Electric violin

That set me wondering about how I might reduce the weight – I thought about putting in some tasteful holes in the side to give it that ‘industrial’ look, but after liberal application of the forstner bits it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing. So I had a re-think. I would need a stub wing on the right for position work and I would need enough belly to hold a shoulder rest – but was the rest of the superstructure really necessary?

Electric violin

The whole thing is made from a fairly dense craftwood so I set to work with the bandsaw and removed segments of the skeletal violin shape – that was a bit better on the weight. And so to the main strut to which the neck was attached. There is a fairly crudely routed box section for the electronics, but the rest seemed to be a solid plank.

Electric violin

I tested with a couple of discreet drill holes and found it was indeed solid MDF – no wonder thing thing weighed so much! I took to the main strut with a couple of sizes of forstner bit in the drill press and took a series of impressions. Then I joined them to make a cavity – not all the way through, but about two-thirds so there would still be plenty of strength. I still need to do a lot of finishing work on the back, but you’ll get the idea.

Electric violin

A LOT of shavings later and the fiddle is now substantially lighter – not quite as light as the kevlar Guscott ones, but certainly light enough to use in performance without putting my neck out 🙂

I agree that it has lost some of the aesthetic quality, but it will work well as a good workhorse electric fiddle


St Albans Folk Festival

Posted by jerry on April 23rd, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Music

Another wonderful St Albans Folk Festival 2007 has come and gone. Highlights included the delightful crowd that attended my fiddle workshop and the really responsive crowd at our Full Circle concert at the Fickle Wombat restaurant. This is a really friendly folk festival – small enough to meet old and new friends, and big enough to hear some great musicians.

The setting is delightful – nestled in a gorge not far from Wisemans Ferry in NSW (about an hour from Newcastle) and the morning mist makes the place quite magical as the first morning flutes and fiddles announce the new day.

We found a campsite conveniently opposite the Fickle Wombat venue


The first stop after setting up camp was to head off to the main festival ground and get a good hot cup of coffee – and a bacon and egg sandwich. Both were warm wet and filling.

But the folk/blues coming out of the main marquee quickly set the scene for a night of great music. I ran into the excellent fiddler Tony Pyrzakowski and he was keen to play a session after his gig with the inimitable Wheeze and Suck Band. They’re terrific if you haven’t heard them – and great to see live as they really get the audience going. You’ve got to hear Tony’s new five string electric fiddle – it’s light; it’s got a great sound; and it has the viola C string as well as the normal violin ones. And in Tony’s hands he makes it really sing. That’s a Guscott fiddle – light weight (the pre-amp goes on your belt, not in the fiddle – and the fiddle is made from lightweight kevlar).

We had a blistering ‘dueling fiddlers’ session at the Settlers Arms pub – a grand old country pub – perfect spot for a music session. There was trad session in the back room then when the pub closed it was everyone on the verandah until the wee hours. Tony and I played and members of the Mothers and Wheeze and Suck and Full Circle – it was terrific and there were several other fiddle and whislte players joining in – and that’s what it’s all about – the sharing of the music. I had a few songs with Nigel ‘Muddy’ Waters – great guy.

Settlers Arms
Settler Arms Hotel, St Albans

When the cool damp air started playing havoc with my bow – the wood expanded until the bow would no longer keep the hair stretched tight – it was time to call it a night.

Next morning with the light mist keeping the dust down Sharon and I headed up to the Fickle Wombat for the Poets breakfast and then over to the Gallery – where my fiddle workshop would be held – and had a lovely fresh brewed plunger coffee and chocolate slice for morning tea, then after checking out the paintings and handcrafts we headed back to the main venue to hear some music and take a few photos.

The fiddle workshop was well attended and I took them through some technique training and some stretching exercises

fiddle workshop St Albans 2007
Jerry’s fiddle workshop, St Albans Folk Festival

fiddle workshop - St Albans

Then it was down to the pub verandah for a bit of a warm-up session with the rest of Full Circle Band before grabbing a bite to eat, some music at the main marquee and then off to get our instruments to the Fickle Wombat ready for our concert.

Fickle Wombat Restaurant, St Albans NSW
The Fickle Wombat, St Albans NSW

These guys deserve a lot of praise as they supported the festival throughout and worked 18 hour days tirelessly to keep everyone fed and coffee’d – Well done!

Other highlights – the Mothers of Intention with their Karifolkie (see it to believe it!) They played at the Fickle Wombat before us and set the scene for the concert to follow

Mothers of Intention - Karifolkie
Mothers of Intention – Karifolkie

Then it was our turn, and we soon had the crowd stomping and dancing and singing along. Tony told me after that as he was walking away to do a Wheeze and Suck gig he heard us start up and he kept wanting to go back and listen to us! We played for a good two hours – which flew by – it seemed like half an hour to us, and the packed audience were really responsive – a truly lovely festival crowd. We were called back for three encores and it was a real high note to end the concert.

The old van went well – with the minor irritant of a short circuit in the headlights to make our arrival in the evening a bit interesting. And we passed a milestone on the speedometer – 400,000kms – in the the van we’ve had since new


With the final morning dawning it was time to pack up the camp, listen to the poets breakfast and say a few farewells before heading back up the road via Wiseman’s Ferry and homeward to Canberra. Interestingly, Wisemans Ferry is the oldest continuously operating ferry service in Australia having run since 1827.

Wisemans Ferry NSW

Wisemans Ferry

… and that sign is in miles! It’s actually 21 km to Wisemans Ferry.

Anyhow, congratulations to Alison Boyd and all the organisers for a great festival – hope to see you all there next year!


The Zimmers – what generation gap?

Posted by jerry on April 17th, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Music, New media

Thanks to Angela I came across this amazing vid

It seems that the lead singer is 90 years old and there he is singing “I hope I die before I get old…” I like their attitude – and I like their visual take on the Beatles Abbey Road cover image too!

Here’s what the YouTube notes say about this group:

Lead singer Alf is 90 – and he’s not the oldest – there are 99 and 100-year-olds in the band!
The Zimmers will feature in a BBC TV documentary being aired in May 2007. Documentary-maker Tim Samuels has been all over Britain recruiting isolated and lonely old people – those who can’t leave their flats or who are stuck in rubbish care homes.
The finale of the show is this group of lonely old people coming together to stick it back to the society that’s cast them aside – by forming a rock troupe and trying to storm into the pop charts.

There are all sorts of things one could sy about society’s marginalisation of the senior population – but above all this is just great fun and they obviously loved doing it 🙂


A busker’s life

Posted by jerry on April 14th, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Music

Having just spent four days doing street performances with Will o the Wisp musical circus, I was intrigued when Sharon spotted this article in the Washington Post online. Take one virtuoso violinist and place him out of his usual context playing to sell-out audiences in the US and Europe’s finest auditoriums and place him in a subway station in Washington DC and observe how people react.

The result is amazing. Watch the videos and see the reactions – or almost complete lack of reaction! I know how he feels: I reckon street performance is one of the hardest genres. As violinist Joshua Bell notes

“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence . . .”

And he was playing a 1710 Stradivarius violin!

Some say my style is …well…vigorous – and that’s because I began my musical career by busking. Very quickly I learnt that if you move with the music people get more responsive. It’s that immediate that you can learn a lot from busking. You get instant feedback on what works and what doesn’t – at least when there is a responsive crowd of passers by.

I suspect there is also a bit of commentary here on US culture – people being utterly absorbed in their own worlds that it takes a lot for people to take in their surroundings.

The article is a fascinating insight into art and context.