Semiotic Analysis

Semiotic Analysis:
A Research Guide
Presented by Megan Henley, Michelle Keddy, Benjamin
Kinsman, Michelle Muggridge and Karen Shields.
Although the earliest origins of semiotics can be traced back to
Aristotle and Augustine, it didn’t begin to be fully developed
until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Semiotics is a broad topic which can be applied to many different
fields, including media studies, theatre and music. Musical
semiotics is a complex and relatively new topic; consequently
materials explaining musical semiotics were very difficult to find
in our library. Thus, the following presentation will not explain
musical semiotics, but will show how one might further research
this topic.
Basically, semiotics is the study of signs and their meanings!
Signs include words, gestures, images, sounds, and objects.
According to Ferdinand de Saussure, a founder of modern
semiotics,sign consists of two parts: the signifier (the form
which the sign takes) and the signified (the concept represents).
For example, an everyday example is a stop sign. In this
example, the physical sign is the signifier. The concept of
stopping is the signified.
=the signifier
=the signified
However, signfiers can have multiple signifieds. Take the color
red for example:
Problems with Semiotics
“Semiotics is essentially a theoretical approach to communication
in that its aim is to establish widely applicable principles…It is
thus vulnerable to the criticism that it is too theoretical, too
speculative and that semioticians make no attempt to prove or
disprove their theories in an objective, scientific way.” (Fiske
1982, 118)
“A musical phrase or even a tone has, as any musician...knows,
many possible kinds of signification and significance -- i.e.
‘meaning’.” (Coker 1972, 2)
Semiotic Terms
 Semantics: the relations of signs to their
contexts and to what they signify.
 Syntactics: the kinds of signs, their
ordering, and their relations to one another.
 Pragmatics: the ways in which signs are
used and interpreted.
The Semiotic Square
 Opposites give each other meaning. For
example, black & white, love & hate.
 Binary Opposition: One signifier (A) vs.
another signifier (B) For example, good
guy vs. bad guy, tonality vs. modality.
 Semiotic Square: A visual representation
of the logical articulations of any semantic
Semiotic Square
 The semiotic square diagrams the ways in
which, starting from any given term, a
complete meaning system can be derived
through exhaustion of logical possibilities.
This is accomplished by developing the
traditional logical concepts of contradictory
(diagonal arrows) and contrary (horizontal
The Semiotic Square
Negates both S1 and S2
Mediates between
S1 and S2
A Musical Example
vouloir être
Actor D
vouloir faire
Actor A
Actor B
Actor C
vouloir non-faire
vouloir non-être
Historical Context
Musical Semiotics is essentially a new concept of musical
analysis and is very subjective. Although it can be applied to all
forms of music, it is best used on chance and program music.
University of Aarhus Center for Semiotics Homepage
Semiotics for Beginners
Music Theory Online (go to All Issues, then, Search the
Database, then Order Form, select search type and enter
semiotics to get a list of articles on musical semiotics.)
Sites of Significance for Semiotics.
Semiotics of Music, presented by Eero Tarasti
Cyber Semiotic Institute.
What is Semiotics?
Semiotics Links
The American Journal of Semiotics
Semiotics - University of Colorado and Denver Solomon's Music Theory &
Composition Resources
Bibliographic sources
Canadian Semiotic Association
semiotic.htm Semiotic Analysis of Images.