EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

Interpretation and musical signification in acousmatic listening

Simon Atkinson

Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre
De Montfort University, Leicester


The challenges of understanding musical meaning are considered in light of ways in which electroacoustic practice and acousmatic listening might embody yet further nuances in how music can function as a signifying system. ‘Classical’ semiotics is discussed, as well as more recent developments in post-structuralist approaches and musical semantics (over roughly the last twenty years) in other areas of music scholarship. The idea, inherited from the tradition of ‘absolute music’, that musical meaning lies exclusively in the inner operations of the musical materials and their structural organisation is questioned. Ideas from ecologically inspired music psychology are drawn upon to highlight the importance of interpretation, as well as perception, in acousmatic listening. It is argued that if new theoretical terminologies are needed, an invaluable project would to develop a taxonomy (and thus theoretical framework) of how sound can ‘stand for something’ i.e. function as a sign in semiotic terms. It is also argued that such terminology should not reinforce distinctions between intra- and extra-musical that feature in many theoretical terms that are used in relation to this music (and are based on the legacy of the similar distinction in the Schaefferian theoretical tradition). Consideration of the Peircean semiotic model in electroacoustic music (as well as the more widely used Saussurean one), tropology in the study of literature, and a much more widely comparative and culturally explicit approach to analysis are suggested as practical starting points. A more critical approach to the integral role of sound recording and reproduction in relation to concepts of representation is needed.