Music as an art of sound has been with human beings for many centuries and has been used to convey concepts and meanings among different people. It is a universal language of mankind in which people use it as an effective power that goes beyond the boundaries of languages. Primarily, the power of music is rooted in the symbolic systems, C S. Peirce studies as the semiotics of Music. C.S. Peirce, the co-founder of semiotics, developed concrete methods and concepts in the study of signs. As he famously put it, human beings think only in signs, and everything can be a sign if only interpreted by someone. The Peirce's model of semiotics, the study of signs, consists of three components; sign/representamen, object, and interpretant. The development of these tools has been used in the analysis of signs and music. Notably, every person has experience in music. For example, the cover song "It's All Coming Back to Me Now" by Celine Dion has evoked different emotions in many people's lives. The song, written by Jim Steinman, is a romantic song that shows a representation of resurrection, and dead things coming to life through memory. The use of Peirce's semiotic tools shows the symbolic meaning evoked by the song for different recipients. It is evident through the study of the song using Peiece's Semiotic tools that the song uses signs to give deep abstract meanings to the audience.
The song "It's All Coming Back to Me Now" is based on the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte in which one of the characters dances with a dead lover, Cathy's corpse. In the cover song by Celine Dion, the song starts by a rainy scene accompanied by thunders and lightning (Celine Dion - It's All Coming Back To Me Now (Official Music Video), 2009). Celine is seen lying on the bed asleep, with her picture and her lover on a table. Candles are seen lighting, though being blown away by the heavy wind from the storms. A man, Celine's lover, is seen to wake up very early and sets on a journey using a motorbike. Unfortunately, the storms continue, and on his way, he gets into an explosive fatal accident which claims his life (Celine Dion - It's All Coming Back To Me Now (Official Music Video), 2009). The song is about the wish by Celine, singing that all the memories had gone with the wind, but they are all coming back to her. The song evokes an emotional reaction, especially to me. Many people have at least lost a loved one that we would all wish to relate with, hung around with and spend some time with. The song uses signs to convey deeper meanings to the audience.
The use of signs creates and evokes meaning and emotion to the audience. According to Peirce, the first component, a sign, is anything used in the song, and which evokes a different meaning by the observer by creating an emotional effect ("Semiotics of Music: From Peirce to AI - Jessie | CCTP711: Semiotics and Cognitive Technology," 2016). In music, a sign can either be a beat, music itself, a performance, a melody, the listener's environment, a recording, or a sound effect ("Peirce's Theory of Signs (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)," 2006). The basic concept under this component is the interpretation of the sign into something else by the audience. For example, in the cover song "It's All Coming Back to Me Now," the starting scene uses signs that represent a loss of a loved one, loneliness and memories. The scene is characterized by a horrifying beginning with thunder and lightning (a storm) in a rainy early morning in which an accident occurs claiming the life of the motorbike rider. This incident, to many people, evokes an emotional connection due to the loss of a loved one. Therefore, the song uses melody, sound effect, and performance as a sign evoking deeper emotions.
According to Peirce, the second tool is the object, which is the idea or the experience created by the sign. It is what the sound refers to in the form of an abstract concept. In explaining the sign-object relationship, Peirce argues that it is a relationship of determinism, in which he argues that it is the object that determines the sign ("Peirce's Theory of Signs (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)," 2006). What he brings forth is a causal connection between the two concepts, with only certain features of an object enabling a sign to signify it. In the song by Celine Dion, the objects are the ideas, emotions, and experiences that are evoked by the signs used in the song. These emotions are mainly a loss of a loved one, loneliness, and torturing memories. These objects relate to the signs used ("Semiotics of Music: From Peirce to AI - Jessie | CCTP711: Semiotics and Cognitive Technology," 2016). On the other hand, the interpretant or the effect is the meaning in the observer of the sign-object relation. It is the understanding that the audience creates in relating the sign and the object. Since different people will have different objects/ideas/experiences which they relate with the signs used, a song will have different meanings to different observers.
Further, Peirce's three famous concepts of icon, index, and symbol are used in reference to different relations between the sign and the object. The three modes of signs signify the kinds of relations between the signifiers and the signified (Turino, 2008). The Icon is the mode for resemblance; in which Peirce argues that it is the connection created between sign and object through resemblance. This icon may be a sound, a drawing, or a portrait. Generally, it creates an imaginative effect. In the song "It's All Coming Back to Me Now," candles have seen lighting which creates an iconic meaning. An index is the second way in which people creates a connection between the sign and the object, in which the observer experiences the sign and the object together. For example in the song, thunder and lightning are the indices of a storm, thus creating a realm of direct connection. Finally, symbols are generally signs. Notably, linguistic signs (words) cannot be used to always operate as symbols, as particular words may be used to refer to the general concept of the object being referred to ("Semiotics of Music: From Peirce to AI - Jessie | CCTP711: Semiotics and Cognitive Technology," 2016). It is generally the mode of connection by social convention between the sign and object. The relationship, therefore, is arbitrary and must be agreed upon.
In conclusion, music is the use of signs to create abstract meanings to different people. As an art, music is used to communicate meanings and emotions through the use of signs. The American Philosopher, Charles Sander's Peirce (1839-1914) created semiotics, theory of signs, in which he argues that every sign situation will have three aspects; the sign, the object, and the effect. While the sign is the anything the song uses to evoke a meaning or an emotion such as the use of a storm, the object is the idea or the meaning created, while the effect is connection made by the observer between the sign and the object. The song "It's All Coming Back to Me Now" uses different signs to evoke different feelings and emotions to the observers. For example, the signs used include a storm, a picture, an accident, a big house, and candles. The objects created from these signs are a tragedy, memory, death/loss, and loneliness. It is a song that makes the audience relate to an experience of loss of loved ones and the memories that comes thereafter. In a nutshell, the use of different signs in the music creates abstract meanings to the audience.
Celine Dion - It's All Coming Back To Me Now (Official Music Video) [Video file]. (2009, October 25). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/pDxoj-tDDIU
Peirce's Theory of Signs (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). (2006, October 13). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/peirce-semiotics/
The Semiotics of Music: From Peirce to AI - Jessie | CCTP711: Semiotics and Cognitive Technology. (2016, December 6). Retrieved from https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/cctp-711-fall2016/2016/12/06/jiessies-draft-contact-a-case-study-of-the-semiotics-of-music/
Turino, T. (2008). Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
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