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Review of  Semiotics of Classical Music

Reviewer: J. L Barnes
Book Title: Semiotics of Classical Music
Book Author: Eero Tarasti
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Issue Number: 24.1075

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This volume, part of De Gruyter Mouton's series ''Semiotics, Communication and Cognition,'' explores the field of semiotics of music, a field which seems to have grown in popularity over the years, with a number of texts arriving in the 1990s, by Tarasti himself, Raymond Monelle, and Jean-Jacques Nattiez, among others. In this volume, Tarasti explores at length what he calls ''existential semiotics,'' a method of investigation equally indebted to the existential tradition in philosophy as it is to Greimassian semiotics. The text is divided into four parts composed of multiple chapters, as well as two ''postludes'' consisting of one chapter each, and features a glossary of terms, bibliography, and index.

While ostensibly a book on semiotics, the text is primarily existential-musicological in nature. That is, while semiotic theory and practice are a part of Tarasti's methodology, the overall nature of the text is that of an existential investigation into specific musical works. Readers without a background in the philosophy of Hegel and his followers in the existentialist tradition will find it hard to navigate the often labyrinthine development of Tarasti's approach. Apart from this, a basic knowledge of the Peircean and Greimassian traditions of semiotics are sufficient to grasp the purely semiotic aspect of his arguments.

The Prelude, ''Music - A philosophic-semiotic approach,'' briefly introduces the methodology used, which Tarasti calls ''existential semiotics.'' This approach (introduced in Tarasti 2000) is ''a purely Greimassian, Paris-school methodology'' (p. xi) further elucidated in Chapter 1, ''Introduction to a Philosophy of Music,'' which covers the basic themes of traditional music philosophy, particularly the ontology of the musical work. Following this, Tarasti delves into the existential background to his semiotic theories. His semiotics is based upon a long line of existential thought, beginning with Kant's concept of the ''in-itself'' and developing through the years. For linguists, who may not have a background in existential philosophy (and indeed, many students of philosophy find it hard to grapple with such a jargon-filled, complex school of thought), a bit of background on the concepts which influenced Tarasti's thought are in order.

The first major inspiration for Tarasti is Hegel, who, building upon Kant's work, introduced the concepts of ''being-in-itself'' (an-sich-sein) and ''being-for-itself (für-sich-sein). For Hegel, being-in-itself is the potentiality of a being, as opposed to the being's actuality, being-for-itself (Hegel 1977:17). Being-in-itself, says Tarasti, has ''no overtly determinational character'' (p. 14). Kierkegaard elaborated on Hegel's phenomenology, characterizing the in-itself's transformation into the for-itself as the individual ''becoming a sign to himself, that is, the emergence of his identity'' (p. 16). Further development of these concepts was provided by Heidegger (1962), who regarded being-in-itself as fully realized Being, ''that which must already 'be' before any other ways in which being is determined'' (Heidegger 1962:124). The final stage of the historical development of these concepts is Sartre, who declared being-in-itself as a strictly non-human Being, with no potentiality for transcendence - a non-conscious Being, (Sartre 1977:xvi), which, upon becoming an observer itself, changes into being-for-itself, the Being of consciousness (p. lxv). This transformation is, strictly speaking, transcendence.

Jacques Fontanille, like Tarasti, was a ''Greimassian semiotician'' who was interested in the concept of transcendence. Instead of being-in-itself and being-for-itself, Fontanille was concerned with the Moi and the Soi, two parallel concepts (Fontanille 2005). The human body is ''the sensory-motoric fulcrum of semiotic experience,'' which supports the Soi. However, ''there is also the 'body' that constitutes the identity . . . of the physical, fleshly body. This body is the carrier of [the Moi].'' In true dialectical fashion, one cannot exist without the other, as the Moi ''is the part of ourselves to which the Soi refers when establishing itself. . . . We shall consider anything belonging to the category of mir/mich (me) to concern the subject as an individual entity, whereas the concept of sich will be reserved for the social aspect of the subject'' (p. 17). In other words, the former is the Moi, the latter the Soi.

The Moi and Soi are both contained within what Jacob von Uexküll (1940) calls the ''Ich-Ton,'' (''I-tone'') a concept denoting ''the identity and individuality of an organism.'' Within the Ich-Ton, the Moi is an existential and individual aspect of Being, in which the subject ''appears as such, as a bundle of sensations,'' whereas the Soi, the social and communal side of Being, appears only ''as it is observed by others, that is, at is socially determined,'' (p. 17). Tarasti believes that when Sebeok speaks of the ''semiotic self,'' he is speaking of the self containing the Moi and Soi, through which transcendence can be reached. In music, Tarasti says, the Soi is composed of the norms of a particular style and era, whereas the Moi is a composer's personal style: ''The engine of musical history is driven primarily by the transformation of the Moi into Soi, or rather, the constant rebellion of the Moi against the communal world of the Soi,'' (p. 22).

The final piece of the existential semiotic puzzle is the aforementioned Greimassian semiotic square. This framework, named after its creator, A. J. Greimas, is a method of visually portraying the opposing structures found in a semiotic system: ''four terms, seen as two opposed pairs. . . . A is opposed to B as -A is to -B,'' (Hawkes 1977:88). Tarasti takes the existential terms just discussed, and situates them on the semiotic square, such that being-in-itself and its opposition being-for-itself, are seen as negations of the Soi and Moi, respectively. In Chapter 6, Tarasti introduces what he calls the “Z” model of the semiotic square, which situates the Hegelian modalities of Being within the square, and tracks the movements of the individual as it moves from one modality to the next. The majority of the erstwhile semiotic investigations in the text utilize this modified Greimassian square to interpret the works of composers as they relate to transcendence and the true nature of Being.

Part I, ''The classical style'' begins with Chapter 2, ''Mozart, or the idea of a continuous avant-garde,'' which attempts to determine whether Mozart himself can be considered ''avant-garde,'' by examining the Moi and Soi of his work, through both Schenkerian and narrative analyses. Chapter 3, ''Existential and transcendental analysis of music,'' discusses the semiotic concepts of pre-sign, post-sign, and trans-sign, as well as the negation and affirmation of Dasein, and uses these ideas to analyze an extract of Beethoven. The title of the following chapter, ''Listening to Beethoven: Universal or national, classical or romantic?'' is fairly self-explanatory, and also includes a brief digression on Theodor Adorno as ''pre-semiotician''.

Part II, “The Romantic Era,” continues the discussion of specific styles and composers. In Chapter 5, ''The irony of romanticism,'' Tarasti utilizes Lucien Goldman's theory of three relations (relation to other people, to ourselves, and the world), which make up each ''philosophy of life'' (p. 119), which he posits is composed of three relations. Chapter 6, “‘... ein leiser Ton gezogen ...’; Robert Schumann's Fantasie in C major (op. 17) in the light of existential semiotics,” introduces Tarasti's ''Z'' model of the Greimassian square, which he uses to interpret Schumann's piece. Chapter 7, ''Brahms and the 'Lyric I': A hermeneutic sign analysis'' looks at Brahms's Lied ''Der Tod, das ist die Kühle Nacht,'' applying what Tarasti calls ''romantic semiotics,'' using his modification of the Greimassian semiotic square to examine first Brahms's text, then music, and finally the interaction of the two.

Tarasti's extended analyses of the work of Richard Wagner begin in Chapter 8, ''Brünnhilde's Choice; or, a Journey into Wagnerian Semiosis: Intuitions and Hypotheses.'' He describes Wagner's use of small melodies, ''around which the whole opera gradually took shape,'' referring to these melodies as ''lexemes'' (p. 190), an explicit nod to traditional semiotics. The semiotic analysis continues with a discussion of signifiers and signifieds in the music, and concludes with an examination of musical isotopies in the Ring Der Nibelungen and an analysis of a scene from Die Walkurie using the modified semiotic square. Further scrutiny of Wagner's ''lexemes'' follows in Chapter 9, ''Do Wagner's leitmotifs have a system?'', which begins with a history and critique of earlier attempts to categorize and document all of the leitmotifs featured in Wagner's Ring cycle. Tarasti examines the ontology of these leitmotifs, trying to determine if they have a ''definite form'' (p. 217). Following this, he develops a new inventory of leitmotifs, categorized according to form and function.

Part III, “Rhetorics and Synaesthesias,” begins with Chapter 10, ''Proust and Wagner.'' This chapter continues the analysis of Wagner while at the same time introducing another of Tarasti's favorite subjects, Marcel Proust. Here, he examines the possibility that Proust's (1934) magnum opus “À la recherche du temps perdu” is an ekphrasis of Wagner's Ring, utilizing Proust's writings on Wagner, both public (the novels themselves) and private (Proust's personal correspondence). Chapter 11, ''Rhetoric and musical discourse,'' examines the relationship between classical written discourse and musical form, with Tarasti calling rhetoric a kind of ''primitive semiotics'' (p. 275).

Chapter 12, ''The semiosis of light in music: from synaesthesias to narratives,'' begins with a brief survey of literature on the relation between timbre, light, and color. Tarasti then uses his semiotic square to develop a ''semiotics of light'' (p. 318), before applying this to a discussion of the portrayal of light in music. Chapter 13, ''The implicit semiotics of Marcel Proust,'' is a chapter-length semiotic analysis of a section of Proust's (1923) “La Prisonnière,” which describes a musical performance given at the salon of one Madame Verdurin, taken section-by-section by Tarasti.

Chapter 14, ''M. K. Ciurlionis and the interrelationships of the arts,'' begins Tarasti's analysis of the relationships between visual arts and music. Here, he examines composer and painter Ciurlionis's musical works, as compared to his paintings, which were often given musical titles. This leads into Chapter 15, ''Ciurlionis, Sibelius, and Nietzsche: Three profiles and interpretations,'' which continues much in the same vein with Ciurlionis, before examining synaesthesic elements in the work of Sibelius. This concludes with a brief note on form in the music of Nietzsche, and the ways in which it expresses the Moi and Soi.

Part IV, “In the Slavonic World,” begins with Chapter 16, ''An essay on Russian Music.'' Here, Tarasti considers Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Shostakovich, examining the Moi and Soi in their respective works, as well as the ''encounter'' between the two. Tarasti's findings are summarized in a chart at the end of the chapter. In Chapter 17, ''The stylistic development of a composer as a cognition of the musicologist: Bohuslav Martinu'', Tarasti analyses the works of this ''hitherto unknown'' composer (p. 413), specifically, the Fourth symphony, in terms of Peirce's categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness; a relatively traditional semiotic analysis of signs, objects, and interpretants (Peirce 1985:6).

Postlude I, Chapter 18, ''Do Semantic Aspects of Music Have a Notation?'' addresses the question of whether standard musical notation expresses musical semantics, and investigates the relation of musical semantics to semantics of language. Postlude II, Chapter 19, ''Music -- Superior Communication,'' discusses the transcendence of music via biosemiotics and the semiotic square.


The first problem with the text is the number of typographical errors and inconsistencies throughout. These range from the minor (inconsistent capitalization of chapter titles), to glaring (an entire missing section: Chapter 2.1 is nowhere to be found.) The organization of chapters also falls a bit short, as themes are introduced in one chapter, only to be followed by a chapter with a completely different theme and method of investigation, while lines of thought abandoned pages ago may again come up unannounced. Where chapters about the same subject follow one another, the approach used in each is completely different, and chapters using the same approach are spread throughout the book haphazardly. In addition to this, many concepts, and indeed some entire stretches of text are repeated verbatim throughout, as if the book were merely a text thrown together from previously unpublished essays. Transitions end up being jarring far too often, and one gets the feeling that the text could have used a thorough going-over from a more organized editor.

All surface faults aside, one possible impediment to fully grasping the scope of Tarasti’s work (as can perhaps be gleaned from the summary above,) is its reliance on Hegelian existentialism. While this is a very important and groundbreaking school of philosophical thought, it is also a very difficult, dense field, relying heavily on terminology not easily accessible to the layman, or even those who may have a relatively vast knowledge of philosophy in general, or other philosophical fields. Because of this, this text's interest to most linguists and semioticists is limited. However, those interested in existential philosophy or musicology may find it very illuminating. That being said, Tarasti's work is not completely without merit in terms of semiotic analysis. Whereas much of the text is idiosyncratic at best, there are a number of sections which make good use of semiotic analysis. Among these, Chapter 9, on Wagner's leitmotifs, is a particularly insightful example. The introductory sections of Chapter 6 on Brahms are also a great source of semiotic investigation, as one of the more significant (and readable) applications of existentialism to semiotic investigation.

However, many of the results of the existential investigations appear as no more than highly subjective readings of the composers and pieces. Much of this is the standard expressive interpretation of music; certain passages are happy, or sad, others depict a struggle, etc. Some of Tarasti’s interpretations, on the other hand, stretch the limits of acceptability. For example, it is a bit hard to swallow that a twelve-measure sequence is written to portray “the anecdote about Goethe and Beethoven’s encounter with the Grand Duke and his spouse on a walk in the gardens at Weimar” (p. 86). The problem is not just limited to what we might consider traditional attempts at interpretation, but gets worse when Tarasti attempts to fuse semiotics with existentialism. While it can be agreed that, for example, Mozart’s highly personal style, as contrasted with the norms of the day, make him avant-garde for his time, a Hegelian interpretation of a chapter of a Proust novel is hardly a musicological investigation, and is of little value to the field of philosophy of music.

To summarize, then, the text almost surely has more to offer for those interested in fairly narrow fields of study than it does for the general reader. This can best be illustrated with a comparison to another text on the semiotics of music, that of Nattiez (1990). Nattiez’s work, though inspired by a different strain of semiotics, also begins with an introduction of methods used, and follows that with applications of those methods to specific aspects of musicology, and specific musical works. Thus, for the linguist, semiotician, or musicologist, it is a highly accessible text, with, one would argue, much to offer in the way of enlightenment. The same cannot be said for this text, due mostly to the amount of background knowledge necessary to fully grasp the intricacies and nuances of Tarasti’s arguments. For those without a background in the Hegelian tradition, Tarasti’s previous book (2000) would almost certainly make this text easier to comprehend. However, its applications to the field of linguistics and semiotics remain limited, leaving it much more appropriate for musicologists and those interested in existential philosophy.


Fontanille, Jacques. 2005. Semiotique du visible: Formes semiotiques. Paris: PUF.

Hawkes, Terence. 1977. Structuralism and semiotics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 1977. Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and time. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. 1990. Music and discourse: Toward a semiology of music. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Peirce, Charles S. 1985. Logic as semiotic: The theory of signs. In Robert E Innis (ed.) Semiotics: An introductory Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Proust, Marcel. 1923. La prisonniere. Paris: Editions de la Nouvelle Revue Française.

Proust, marcel. 1934. Remembrance of Things Past. New York: Random House.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1977. Being and nothingness. Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press.

Tarasti, Eero. 2000. Existential semiotics. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

von Uexkull, Jakob. 1940. Bedeutungslehre. Leipzig: Barth.
J. L. Barnes is a philosophy and linguistics graduate currently residing in the Louisville, KY area. Areas of interest include semantics, philosophy of language, semiotics, and the relationship between music and language.