Music – a Systemic Functional Approach

Posted by jerry on May 20th, 2007 — Posted in

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.

This schema is best considered by way of analogy with linguistic analysis. But that does not lessen its value as a means of providing a language with which to explore how a piece of music functions to make meaning within a broader social and intertextual context. As it stands, the schema should be read as applying primarily to Western music (encompassing classical, jazz, rock, or folk music). I would be interested to hear from others who may feel this is useful for music across a range of ethnicities. As it stands the schema is based on music organised within the seven Greek Modes: major, minor (melodic and harmonic), dorian, lydian, myxolydian, phrygian, pentatonic.

Such a schema will not identify why a piece of music is considered to be great art, while another is considered vernacular – as these are cultural, rather than structural questions. But it could provide a point of entry to describe how it functions within a system of signs. That is, it may provide some explanatory power for describing what is going on in a piece of music – even for the non-musician.

The schema operates by breaking down a given piece of music into its constituent parts for the purposes of analysis – and considers how each part functions within its rank order – just as a written text works from the level of phoneme and morpheme up to phrases and sentences by way of verb and noun functions. Even within the schema there are of course problems in clearly identifying the distinction between, for example, ideational and interpersonal as each component will have aspects of both – especially in a purely symbolic mode of signification, like music.

And so to music. At its most basic level there are oppositions between sound and silence – already a relational system, because music is a function of the relationship between sound and silence. It is also a function of the relationship between notes – the interval between notes. So at the level of phoneme, the relationships of pitch between one note and another will determine the position of the note within a scale or key.

The scale for its part is a function of the physics of music, and the extent to which a second note reinforces or conflicts with the harmonic overtones of a base note. Where a second note strongly reinforces the harmonic overtones the sound is stronger, sometimes associated with happy or joyful music in the western tradition, and forms part of a type of mode called a major key. There are of course cultural specificities involved in the connotative connection between the strength of the sound and its emotional interpretation. Where the notes in a sequence cancel out or do not reinforce the tonic note, the sound is weaker, often identified in Western music as more mournful, and tending towards, perhaps a minor key (or mode) And there are variations in between that constitute other modes, such as dorian or lydian and so on. While strictly linking emotional affect with specific modes is problematic, it is equally hard to believe that human beings are entirely uninfluenced by the pure physics of sound

And so to a short digression on the physics of sound: Harmonics are generated by any given note. If you divide the string length by regular divisions, you will obtain the harmonic overtones of that string in a particular sequence – and it will be same sequence irrespective of the starting length of string, or the starting note. Briefly, if you divide the string into two halves, each half will sound an octave above the prime note. If you divide the string by thirds you get the Dominant note – if (C) was the start note, then by dividing the string into thirds you get the dominant (G), or fifth note in the scale derived from the harmonic overtone series. By being the first different note, it is also the most audible – hence its dominant position in the scale. Dividing by quarters yields another octave (hence the prime note is reinforced many times). Dividing the string by five gives you a note a third above the prime – in this case the sub-dominant, (E). Divide the string into sevenths and you get a (B). Dividing into eighths gives you another octave reinforcement, but dividing into ninths you get a (D). Dividing into tenths you gt an (E), and into elevenths you get an (F). So if you take each of the different notes and place them in scale sequence, you wind up with a diatonic octave that is suspiciously close to a major scale. And if you keep going you wind up with the accidentals that form the Western chromatic scale. Interestingly, children’s taunting chants the world over seem to comprise a sequence like G-E-B-G-E as though innately picking up on the harmonic overtone series!

One proof that physics rules, and that the western ‘tempered’ scale is an artificial construct can be heard if you take a violin – which is tuned in fifths, play for example the open D string and the A string with the first finger on it to make a B – make sure they are in tune. Now without moving the B finger, play the B and the open E string together – Ouch! You see, with multi-tonal instruments, like pianos the differences are averaged out across all the intervals so in actual fact all pianos are deliberately slightly out of tune (by about ten cents or ten x one hundredth of a full tone) between any two notes – the difference is all but inaudible, but this marks the difference between a piano and, say, a harpsichord. So the radical innovation of the piano was that you could change keys without retuning! And that led to a whole revolution in Western music in the 1650s. But that’s another story 🙂

Back to the schema. At the ideational level we can look at the actual position of a note within a scale. At the interpersonal level we might consider the orientation of the note in relation to other notes – what oppositions it establishes, how does it relate to other sounds, or with silence. How is it played? Loud or soft? And with what instrumentation? All of these will help to establish a relationship with the listener. At a textual level we begin to interpret the meaning or content of the phoneme. What is the frequency – distribution of this note within the work? What is its position? What is it placed near – what collocations does it have? And what is the pitch interval between that note an the adjacent ones? All of these will start to give us a sense of how we will relate to the music.

From the first note, there are a number of aspects by which a piece of music begins to develop a relationship with the listener – this is the beginning of the music’s semiotic ‘gaze’.

At the next rank level, we reach the motif – the first real ‘morpheme’ function of music. This is the first real level of recognisable lexical content. At the Ideational level this is where we encounter recognisable figures or recurrent patterns. In some music this might relate to the entry of a particular character in a play, or on a screen, and variations of these motifs or figures may recur in several forms to identify a sense of place or person. At the interpersonal level the mood of the figure might be reflected in certain transformations of the motif, such as restatement in a minor key to indicate an emotional attitude towards the individual identified within the motif. This may also be accomplished with voicing – the selection and range of instruments (including the human voice) with which to play this motif. And at a textual level it can make a difference as to where in the piece the motif occurs – near the beginning, collocated with other themes, or near the end – perhaps announcing the end and providing a sense of narrative closure.

How the motifs relate to other motifs can start to indicate the broader theme – at the ideational level this might be played out in terms of which motif comes first, or dominates the music, and which take secondary parts. Here we have the level of nominal ‘characters’ each dancing around the other for narrative prominence. At the interpersonal level we start to get a sense of the way the listener is positioned in relation to the motifs. This is also an aspect of the narrative ‘gaze’. But beyond that, this characterisation of the plot will also provide pointers to key tonality, tone colour, dynamics, and a sense of line or narrative sequence through the melodic line. At the textual level we also get a sense of how certain sets of intervals become pointers to the key, thus performing a deictic function through tone qualifiers (flat 5ths ‘blue’ notes etc) – although in some respects it could be argued that the relative position of note within within a particular key can also be considered deictic, so deixis is not restricted to this rank order. Again we can derive a sense of an ending from such motifs.

At the rank order of phrase the propositional content emerges at the ideational level through the combination of theme and rhythm, repetitions, anticipations, recapitulations and cadences, as well as conjunctions leading into or segueing into the next portion. at the interpersonal level the relationship to the listener is established through rhythmic and tempo modifiers, establishing a sense of dance or narrative, or mood – even a sense of irony can be conveyed at this level. And these techniques can be analysed at the compositional or textual level to show precisely how these elements are combining physically to make up the elements of phrasing. Sometimes separated by pauses or key changes or rhythmic changes, this rank order functions like a sentence within a larger work.

The combination of a series of phrases into a coherent larger unit, be it a movement within a symphonic work, or a verse in a song, at the rank order of movement we find a higher order of complexity. At the ideational or compositional level we have the interplay of multiple themes into a broader structure. We also have the emergence of sub-themes, and there is a broader sense of narrative conveyed through a range of devices. At the interpersonal level, or modality the listener is immersed in the mood as dictated by the tempo or pace, the mode in which this section is played – what type of key it is, the pitch range, the dynamics of volume and the voicing or instrumentation, all establish a by now immersive experience. At the textual level this is played out in the degree of textual coherence indicated by the interplay of contrasting themes, conjunctions between elements, use of sub-themes, modulations to different keys, the establishment of tonal ambiguities and so on.

At the rank order of ‘work‘ we come to a point where we move beyond what we are listening to right now, and move into the broader cultural context. At the ideational or propositional level we are dealing with not only the orchestration, but with th situation of this work within a genre. At this level we are dealing with intertextuality – how does this work relate to others of its kind? At the interpersonal level we are dealing with modality in terms of where the work sits culturally – is it fantasy, descriptive, ironic, and so on, all of which are expressed through the voicing, the key, the dynamics the sense of ‘weight’ or majesty conveyed by the music. And at the textual level we are dealing consciously with the framing conventions. What genre is this work? be it song, dance tune, symphony, tone poem and so on.

And at the rank order of school/period we are coming to grips with the ideological base or larger cultural, social and historical context. At the ideational level this might be expressed through oppositions of religious/secular or canonical/popular and so on. At the interpersonal level we are dealing with how the piece is oriented through its formal elements, through its degree of ornamentation, or through its emotional aspect. And at the textual level we can probably by now identify the specific genre or historical movement within which it is situated or which it is quoting.

All of which can be mapped in terms of the schema summarised below

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.

Thanks to Tamsin Sanderson for insightful comments on this piece. I welcome further comments.




Comment by Sarah E.

Wow, music and linguistics…my favorite combination! What a well written piece, and your schema is not all that naive at all. Have you ever (just out of curiosity) read “Godel, Escher, Bach”? (published in the early ’80’s). Gotta print this out so I can re-read it and keep it. Thanks!

Posted on June 22, 2007 at 2:11 am

Comment by Gigi

Amazing! I’m an opera director struggling with linguistics (to get my translator degree) and find this jewel!
And I think it has helped me understand better
Thank you so much 4 your generosity
And keep this up!

Posted on July 1, 2007 at 9:39 am

Comment by jerry

You are most welcome – I have in mind to revisit this schema and to develop it further as it so far seems almost unique. I was aiming to find a common language with which artistic expression across genres could be discussed in congruent terms.


Posted on July 1, 2007 at 11:18 am

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[…] 5, 2007 Music – a systemic functional approach – revisited Posted by jerry under theory | Tags: Music theory, semiotics |   I had some wonderfulfeedback from Frieberg-trained linguist Tamsin Sanderson on my systemic functional music schema and as a consequence have incorporated a number of amendments – this piece is developing rapidly! […]

Posted on January 20, 2008 at 11:07 pm

Comment by Steve Dillon

HI Jerry, this is a nice framework but from a musicological point of view one that is rooted in western art concepts of music. Aural perception frameworks are at the heart of the values we place on music in society and its function and context. As one who works across music in ethnomusicology and even urban ethnomusicology that stuggles with the ethics of syncretism and tradition I would suggest 2 quite useful sources to examine. First Sound in time sound in space by Aussie composer Richard Vella as he suggests an aural perception framework that simply asks what is happening in time and space which is a little more inclusive than any focus on melody harmony etc. Secondly from a deeper western perspective George Pratts Aural Perception principles and practice. This offers an extended musical elements base that includes space and and non linear structures.

I find your chart able to track musical relationships and several students of mine have used spectral representations alongside Common practice notation to examine these kinds of relationships but they also refer to the value system ie I have a theo-ethno-musicology grad student who is looking for ecstasy and its representation in sound and values. he is simultaneously examining semiotics against musicological and theological data. His use of spectral and CPN images has been really helpful in revealing characteristics of sound that make it replicable and able to be applied to new work which has a similar effect on the listener. Love to talk to you more about this.

Posted on February 22, 2010 at 10:33 am

Comment by jerry

Thanks for the excellent, and considered comment – yes the piece to a large extent reflects the time in which it was first conceived – in 1986.

Your comments about it being rooted in western musicology are correct, but there is perhaps another consideration which has to do with the extent to which musical affect (ie emotional response) is universal versus culturally embedded.

This version is not necessarily a universal semiotics, but as you have pointed out may be better suited to application across genres. Noting that one is always embedded in one’s own musical culture it may also be useful to provide a Western understanding to ethnically diverse music forms.

And yes I’d love to discuss this with you further 🙂

Posted on February 22, 2010 at 7:12 pm

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