Introduction to the
Semiotic Analysis of Popular Music
(Module code MUSI 511)
Description of Assignment
Tutor: P Tagg, Institute of Popular Music, University of Liverpool

Last update: 2000-02-10

Terminology updated Montréal 2009-10-22

This particular document should be read in connection with

Music's Meanings


[Go to top]Aim
The main point of this assignment is to get to grips with the materials of music as a communicative form of expression. This implies going into considerable detail about what sounds are actually audible and about how the music is interpreted by listeners. In order to increase awareness of this essential aspect of musical practice, this assignment is centred around the detailed analysis and graphic presentation of a piece of popular music. The graphic presentation element develops aural skills, as well as frequently revealing aspects of musical structuration of which you may well have previously been unaware. Discovery of what is actually audible serves as one empirical basis on which the analysis part of the assignment is grounded.

The semiotic analysis part of this assignment allows students to develop their understanding of musical communication (how and why who says what to whom) on the basis of an in-depth description of individual pieces of music.

[Go to top]Presentation and submission
Each student on this module presents work as follows:
  • Initial presentation of song for feedback purposes (to increase IOCM and acquire other associations)
  • Oral presentation to seminar participants of results of analysis
  • Written presentation of analysis, including graphic score. Please note that:

  •     1) Students must follow the General instructions for Assignment submission.

        2) Students are expected to have read and learnt from the Assignment and Dissertation Tips
        3) Written presentations should be provided with the appropriate Assignment Submission Cover Sheet.

    [Go to top]Selection criteria
    In consultation with the course tutor, each student chooses a piece of music on record as the object of analysis.


    Only in exceptional cases should the duration of the chosen piece exceed five minutes. If a very short piece is chosen, you should either select a similarly short second piece to analyse by way of comparison or else carry out a proportionately more rigorous analysis and produce a more detailed graphic presentation.

    Other tips

    The piece you choose may be in any musical style, with or without lyrics in any language, accompanied or unaccompanied by visuals, etc.

    You should be interested enough in the music you choose and its communicative aspects to withstand hearing it hundreds of times. The piece should provide you with more than 'purely musical' interest, so that you have a chance of contextualising it in a meaningful fashion.

    Since you are expected to make a time grid of events in your analysis object, it will save you a lot of time if the piece you choose is recorded on a sound carrier whose hardware or software includes a real time counter (e.g. CD, MiniDisc, MP3).

    [Go to top]Feedback sessions
    In order to obtain some level of empirical intersubjectivity in your work, you will play your piece to seminar participants who, in their turn, will be expected to provide you with paramusical associations and interobjective comparison material ('IOCM' — for explanations, see reading).

    You should prepare your presentation at these sessions by recording separately those parts of your piece to which you need to draw participant attention.You should also use feedback sessions to make note of associations that participants may provide both to paramusical phenomena (PMFCs) and to other music (IOCM). For explanation of terms, see Introduction to the Semiotics of Music.

    [Go to top]Writing up the assignment
    Metamusical vocabulary

    One of the great difficulties in talking or writing about music is knowing which words to use when referring to its various sounds in such a way that whoever you are addressing will know what you mean. Of course, some style labels may be useful to the extent that terms like 'European classical music' or 'blues' may give your audience a general idea of the types of sound you are referring to. However, the idea will be no more than that general and any further precision of style nomenclature such as 'rococo' or 'Memphis blues' is less likely to be understood by as many people. Even then, a style name does not allow you to pinpoint particular sounds within that one style, let alone within one piece of music.

    Of course, musicians have developed a whole range of terms denoting particularities of musical sound. Unfortunately, there are two problems with this store of words: one is that there are as many sets of vocabulary referring to musical structure in the world as there are different musical styles, the other that a lot of musician talk about music is incomprehensible to the majority of people in the culture they cohabit.

    Similar problems of incomprehensibility unfortunately apply to significant amounts of musicological discourse, especially in the typically European regions of pitch specification, i.e. in connection with harmony, counterpoint, tonal vocabulary and metre. However, expressions qualifying contour, volume, timbre, space, speed, attack, etc. can be used by anyone with a command of their mother tongue, as indeed can several more specialist yet fully understandable terms like 'polymetric', 'polyrhythmic', 'polyphonic', 'monophonic', 'heterophonic', 'legato', 'staccato', 'pizzicato', 'glissando', 'crescendo', 'diminuendo', 'drone', 'pedal point', 'pentatonic', 'anacrusis', 'distortion', 'phasing', 'panning', etc., etc. Such terms will be explained during the course of sessions 1-3. Similarly, many instrumental sounds and vocal types can be easily and correctly identified by anyone with reasonable hearing and a modicum of experience in listening to music in the relevant style. Nevertheless, the majority of musical sounds to which you will need to refer are cannot be satisfactorily denoted, even if armed with this small arsenal of terms just mentioned. This remaining difficulty can be successfully circumnavigated in two ways that need to be employed in conjunction with each other: (i) aesthesic denotation; (ii) unequivocal chronometric placement in a recorded series of sound events.

    [Go to top] By aesthesic denotation is meant verbal denotation of certain perceived qualities connoting the sound to be identified. Such an expression may be based on interobjective comparison for example, 'the Bach arpeggio', 'the gamelan final gong sound', 'the Hey Jude chord sequence' or on the analysis object's own paramusical fields of association, i.e. on connotations to the particular sound provided by your respondents, including yourself for example 'steamy', 'croaking', 'witch-like', 'bubbles', 'sunrise'. (For more details, see 'interobjective comparison' and 'paramusical fields of association' in other handouts.) However, although this type of exercise allows you to refer concisely to particular sounds in your analysis piece, such reference will not be unequivocal because other sounds resembling, say, Bach arpeggios, gamelan gongs, the Hey Jude chord sequence, or sounds possibly qualifiable as 'steamy', 'croaking', 'witch-like', 'bubbles', 'sunrise' etc. will almost certainly exist in many other pieces, probably in a slightly different sonic guise to that occurring in your piece. For this reason, unequivocal chronometric placement is essential.

    [Go to top] By unequivocal chronometric placement in a recorded series of sound events is meant the start and end points of the sound you wish to identify in relation to the start of the complete piece. Unfortunately for this assignment (though fortunately for music in general), music usually consists of several different sounds (or aspects of the same sound) occurring at the same time. Therefore, in order to make the chronometric placement unequivocal, it is often necessary to qualify the sound you wish to identify in relation to other concurrent sounds (e.g. 'the kick drum figure at 1:33', 'the screeching synth sound at 0:21', 'at the word 'love' in the third 'I love you' of verse 2'). Of course, this necessary step in the identification of a particular sound presupposes that you have noted how far into the piece such (and other) events actually occur. To this end, it is essential that your work includes a graphic score of events in your piece. 

    [Go to top]Graphic score
    Two models of graphic presentation are provided as separate handouts in connection with sessions 2 and 3.

    If you wish, you may try and transcribe your analysis piece in the form of musical notation. However, this often arduous task is by no means necessary in this assignment. If you do opt to transcribe part or whole of your piece, please remember that notational skills are not a prerequisite on this module and that your presentation may therefire be incomprehensible to some participants.

    The graphic presentation should include the following parallel lines: (i) time grid; (ii) formal grid; (iii) paramusical events (if applicable); (iv) grid of musematic occurrence (see handout 'Introductory Notes'). This graphic score should ideally be proportionally chronometric so that equal durations occupy equal amounts of horizontal space.

    Time grid

    A time grid consists of a horizontal line along which you mark the timing of significant musical events throughout the piece (e.g. 0:44 = 44 seconds into the piece, 3:01 = 3 minutes and 1 second into the piece). Obviously, you will save a lot of time if the piece you choose is recorded on a sound carrier whose hardware or software includes a real time counter (e.g. CD, MiniDisc, MP3 players).

    [Optional: you may, if you wish and if appropriate, also supply the score with a metric grid, i.e. with bar lines and eventual changes of metre].

    Formal grid

    The formal grid indicates where, in relation to the time grid, the various sections of the piece start and end, e.g. 'intro', 'verse 1', 'chorus 2', 'interlude 3', etc.

    Paramusical grid

    The paramusical grid contains such events as lyrics, description (or drawings) of visuals.

    Grid of musematic occurrence

    This grid should contain as many parallel horizontal lines as you identify separately meaningful sounds in your piece. The start and end point of each museme should be clearly visible from your presentation.

    [Go to top]Duplication

    Before your final presentation, you will be asked to photocopy your graphic score for the other seminar participants.

    Before photocopying, ensure that your score is headed with your name and the name of the piece. Number all sheets and write on one side only of each page. You are obviously advised to make your first attempts at graphic presentation using pencil and a rubber. However, before photocopying please ensure that your graphic score is in clear, sharp, black and white, not in colour and not in pencil or crayon.

    [Go to top] Listening tips and tricks

    To make certain parts of the recording more audible and easier to identify, try some of the following tricks:

    • Use the equaliser or treble and bass controls on your amp to highlight particular frequencies
    • Use the right/left balance and mono/stereo controls to locate particular tracks.
    • Play the piece through different headphones and different speakers or position yourself differently in relation to the speakers.
    • If you have a varispeed or dual speed reel-to-reel tape machine (e.g. a Revox), record difficult fast high passages at high speed and play them back at low speed. For long, low bass and harmony notes, record slow and play back fast.
    • If you have a computer with a sound card and digital recording facilities, record any problematic short passages as a WAV file and edit it so that the bit you find particularly difficult becomes a short loop (as if you were sampling). It may also be useful to delete events after the soundbyte in question so you are left with 'silence' during which to ponder undisturbed over what you just heard.
    • If you get fed up with the piece, leave it and come back to it after a while.
    • You may come across sounds that defy identification because they are virtually inaudible in the mix. If you are unable to make an intelligent guess, or put in 'inaudible' or 'indiscernible' plus a footnote flag. In the footnote itself give a short description of the sort of sound, rhythm or movement you think is being played.

    [Go to top]Other important points
    • Why have you chosen this piece of music and not another?
    • What is so special, interesting, problematic, etc. about it?
    • What is the piece? Who are the artist(s), composer(s), etc? When was it written, produced, etc? (See essay writing tips handout for discographical detail presentation norms).
    • Did your analysis piece appear on any charts? If so, which charts and when?
    • When and how was the music used for what purposes by whom?
    • What (verbal and non-verbal) communication is provided by the lyrics, visual narrative, record sleeve, CD inlay, etc.
    • Have you accounted for musical features (see checklist of parameters of musical expression) including (a) individual sounds and their connotations, (b) how those sounds combine into sections to create what effects and (c) how the sections combine over time to create a musical process or sequence of combined effects.
    • Have you accounted for how the music relates to the words, visual narrative, dancing, religious or political function or whatever else it accompanies (or accompanies it)?
    • Have you presented conclusions or hypotheses as to how the music fulfils whatever functions it is supposed to? Have you evaluated those functions (cultural, social, political, etc.) and the role of the music you have discussed in those functions?
    • Would your presentation be helped by playing pertinent examples of IOCM?

    [Go to top]