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
i)Form (eg Classical)
ii)Ornament (eg baroque)
iii) Sense (eg romantic)
||Type of orchestration/Intertextuality
as expressed by:
eg song/folk dance/tonepoem/sonata/etc
eg: statement, recapitulation,cadence (ending), conjunction
eg slow movement
|Textual coherence :
-interplay of theme
-to different key
-to different mode
|Play of figures
relation to hearer – ‘gaze’
-pointers to key tonality
-line (melodic sequence)
Tonal qualifiers – flat 5ths/7ths etc
-position in theme
-posn in movement
-posn in Work
Basic unit of information:
degree of scale:
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.
linguistics music semiotics stylistics Theory
America starts the day with coffee – for some it’s a simple filter coffee, for others a double decaf latte with complications. But it’s always coffee.
Perhaps it’s a pre-breakfast business meeting – notice the power relationship: semiotically (proxemics – spatial orientation – gaze, dress), two have coffees and are leaning forward aggressively while the third has nothing and has his arms folded defensively – this is not a pleasant meeting…
Or a couple bored with life and each other – both with arms folded and looking away from each other, lost in their own worlds and present to neither, each tolerating the other’s presence but wishing they were elsewhere.
And sometimes, it’s a bite out of time to escape into a good book and leave behind the mundane for a little while. This woman let her coffee go cold – such was the power of narrative!
Gradually the Mall rubs the sleep from its eyes and begins the day.
Somehow the off-white tiles stay clean. Every second person carries a take-out coffee and the other half are talking on cell-phones – perhaps to each other.
The stores beckon with the lure of the exotic – Shogun of England, Clarks Shoes (England), Lenkersdorfer, Haagen Dazs – European names and references to that which is not here.
body language coffee mall proxemics semiotics Theory Travel
Time for the quirkies – what does one notice as an outsider/stranger to a place?
A good place to start is the humble hotel room. We hold these truths to be self-evident: if you hang your wet clothes from a hotel fire sprinkler they’ll get wetter – a whole lot wetter! So it seemed a bit interesting that they felt it necessary to affix the following sign beneath the fire sprinkler over the bed – is there something they’re not telling us?
For sheer iconicity the US fire hydrant – looking for all the world like a cute ‘Bob the Builder’ with its two arms and red hat takes the prize for turning utilitarian design into an innoffensive and proportionally excellent artform.
Also known as a ‘fire plug’ from its origins in the days of wooden water mains, the modern upright cast iron version appears to have been invented by Frederick Graff snr in 1803 for the then newly-installed Philadelphia water works. The ‘Mathews Improved’ dry-barrel model was patented in 1850 and seems to be close to today’s design.
I spend much of my time looking up at architectural details – many based on classical designs, but I also try to look beneath my feet. And here are a couple of examples. The first a standard water main inspection cover
The second a fuel tank inspection cover in a gas station (petrol station)
The US obsession with the discourse of security is entirely understandable, and there is no doubt that this country has adapted well to its perception of threat. As a visitor one is struck by the blossoming of signs aimed at reminding people of the sorts of credible threats that require signage in case you forget and accidentally feel safe and secure.
Are shopping trolleys covered in the “Other” category? 🙂
And not so much a quirkie, I just thought I’d mention that Haagen Dazs chocolate ice cream is simply delicious! – the Tysons Corner Mall has one of their restaurants – yum!
I’ll leave the quirkies for the moment because I made a discovery. Exploring the larger mall at Tysons Corner Center 1 in Washington DC I took a fairly random turn looking for a place to get some food.
It was a bit of a culdesac and I was about to turn back when I saw what looked like a confectionery store – and it was – of an altogether different kind.
The place was called ‘Beadazzled’. Yes, a bead shop – a laaarge bead shop!
So naturally I had to do a reccy for Sharon and, well, perhaps the place had reasonable prices too.
Suffice to say – it’s a surprise (so don’t tell her) I’ll let her open the package when I get home 🙂
There are a number of iconic buildings in Washington DC. The Capitol features everywhere from teatowels to snow cones and there is no doubt about its classical proportions – it is an impressive building.
The Smithsonian Institution began as a private collection and its first building still houses part of the collection – mainly ethnographic material from the Africas. Known as ‘the castle’ this red-brick building still has a lovely proportion to it. And the flower garden is stunning in Spring.
The entrance – part medieval, part romanesque still bears the inscription of the institution’s name.
Sadly, my stated ‘one nice thing’ won’t happen as advertised – the National Museum of American History is closed for renovations and won’t re-open before 2008. So I’ll have to rethink this a bit.
Perhaps I can console myself with some popcorn from one of these delightful stands along The Mall.
Other buildings include the impressive Jefferson Memorial overlooking the Potomac
Are we there yet?
And the quirky side might just emerge tomorrow 🙂