Four Semiotic Approaches to Musical Meaning: Markedness, Topics, Tropes, and Gesture

  • Robert S. Hatten
Keywords: style, markedness, topic, trope, gesture, Beethoven, Schubert


After a brief survey of music semiotic developments in the United States, I present four interrelated approaches based on my own work. Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, Correlation, and Interpretation (1994) presents a new approach to understanding the systematic nature of correlation between sound and meaning, based on a concept of musical style drawn from Rosen (1972) and Meyer (1980, 1989), and expanded in Hatten (1982). Markedness is a useful tool for explaining the asymmetrical valuation of musical oppositions and their mapping onto cultural oppositions. This process of correlation as encoded in the style is further developed, along Peircean lines, by interpretation, as hermeneutically revealed in the work. Topics, elaborated by Ratner (1980) and developed by Allanbrook (1983), Agawu (1991), and Monelle (2000), are larger style types with stable correlations and flexible interpretive ranges. I extend topical analysis to the level of expressive genres, coordinated by marked oppositions. I also illustrate how topics may be combined to produce striking new meanings akin to metaphor in language, a process I call musical troping. Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert (2004) expands the application of these concepts, and introduces a semiotic theory musical gesture, understood as significant energetic shaping through time. I illustrate these semiotic approaches with examples from Beethoven and Schubert.


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How to Cite
HattenR. S. (2005). Four Semiotic Approaches to Musical Meaning: Markedness, Topics, Tropes, and Gesture. Musicological Annual, 41(1), 5-30.