Music and Semiotic: A Pair Beyond Compatible?

Bayu Wikranta
11 min readDec 31, 2021
Weather Report, 70s.

Ferdinand de Saussure began his semiotic study as a form of critique towards the linguistic system before him, which places the context of the language of sign or symbolization with its necessity relation alongside material objects. In Saussure’s semiotics, signs are not reflections of reality, but are constructs of reality, meaning that these languages do not have to have a real form in the world. Material objects become insignificant, further with his semiotic theory which places a signifier and signified in the form of a dyadic model consisting of only these two elements. Saussure stated that this signifier is in the form of sound-image which to “said and heard” and, “read and written”.

Saussure did not accept the notion that the basic bond which exists in a language is between words and things. Objects in his semiotics do not emphasize in the traditional sense of objects as matter, physical, but rather an external reality of language symbolization — a symptom of communication where the signified of the signifier communicated in the dialogue that has a picture and meaning in which different from where they involved.

Comparing Saussure with Charles Sander Peirce’s semiotics — Peirce’s semiotics uses a triadic model that consists of three elements of interpretant, representamen, and referent (object). Foremost, there is a kind of arbitrarily in Peirce’s model of semiotics. First, at which point in the triadic — the three parts of the system are placed, and that the representamen is often written as a sign and referent as the object. These issues though minor, still raise questions such as whether this triadic model functions as a stage or just an indeterminate point in placing elements of Pierce’s semiotic theory.

Objects or referent in Pierce’s semiotics, in his very definition as “something that is believed to be in real form, is expected to be real — the continuation of something real, or another type of material existence”. Pierce seems to provide a wide range of objects state, but lots of examples show this element still often paired with objects that are real, physical, and material that exist and are easily perceivable in the world — not with music. Simply put, music is not a material object, as Djohan (2020) said, “Music is a vibrational element of physics and the cosmos”. Music will tend not to get a suitable place of analysis when faced with Peirce’s triadic model, especially dealing with the object or referent.

Pierce’s triadic model.

An object of example for Pierce’s referent I am about to present is music — not in a very normative sense. It is music as vibration or raw sounds. One needs further reading regarding the history of the term “music”, with its style and component, and a constantly changing perception of what “music” is. But still, to show the paradigm that I used here, the dichotomy is as simple as instrumental music, and lyrical music (think of some bands we know, say The Beatles, Led Zeppelin — lyrical, and others the opposite like Weather Report or Pink Floyd) Both types still have “similar” musicality to an extent. We can also use the example of Classical Music as instrumental, with Folk Music as lyrical, in a wider sense. But for the time’s sake, I must admit here that I went a bit with a reductionist method.

Music from the sound of nickel clinking. This will be a representamen. The interpreter raises the concept of a thing — a coin. The object (referent) then can be referred to as a real, physical, matter, of a coin. Zip. But if the object is written and described as a “coin”, this can be a fallacy because coins should not be thought of as they are, but should be a form of the sound of coins clinking. Then if the interpreter writes the sound of a coin clinking, it only exists in a theoretical triadic model from Pierce’s semiotic, because in the real world how does one objectify the “clink sound of a coin”? It is vibrational sounds that are not visible to the naked eye.

I believe it is unfair if the case above can be processed in specific technology that expresses the mathematical pulse, level, or frequency sound of a coin clinking. It cannot be called purely “coins clinking sound”, but a representation of images and objects from coins clinking sound. The sound of the coins clinking could be questioned as to turned into a form of representation in different ways — say a human trying to imitate that very sound. The sound of the coins clinking may not be the sound of coins clinking but produced from other things that can make the interpreter believe to hear the coins clinking. This such as audio production with the foley technique in films. The sounds we heard are representational from other things different — that we thought not in the case different, but still, we hear as the same.

For example other than sounds or music, namely words that cannot be found its real, material object in the world — is just as same issues stated above. Language represented by material objects such as “tree”, “fire”, “a black cat” will not have any issues and just go along fine in Peirce’s triadic model. That being said, Peirce’s semiotics will be more suitable for semiotic analysis on things tangible in nature, concrete examples such as architecture, artifacts, sculptures, paintings, road signs, furniture, and so on. Just things.

Peirce’s semiotic with an object (referent) element does not necessarily preferable to Saussure’s with the dyadic model. Peirce developed a general theory of signs and pragmatism, as opposed to Saussure’s theory of the uncertainty (subjectivity) of language-sign. Peirce’s background, a philosopher and logician, while Saussure is a linguist who developed a modern linguistic system — set off from semiotic sign system which according to him is only one of the other sign systems in human life, in which subjective and contextual. Music is something that is heard and has no form in the visible eye, even if the lyrics are written in a physical matter, it does not become a thing that stands independently because it becomes part of other things, such as paper, plastic, grounds, and so on. If not the lyrics, but the musical notation, music sheets, or score — all the representational “sounds”, the problem is similar.

Another semiotician — Roland Barthes, despite Barthes adopting elements of Saussure’s semiotics — Barthes still brings up issues similar to Peirce’s, where Barthes’ semiotic still mentions a lot of objects of a material element. Quite evident from his book Mythologies (1957) which examines popular cultural objects of France. These objects such as food and drink, toys, household necessities, performing arts, architecture — are associated by Barthes as a form of bourgeois and capitalist cultural strength in France, as well as his form of critique towards stated through semiotics. Barthes’ semiotics still uses the signifier and the signified theory like Saussure’s, but has a deeper level of the signifier and signified system, which is the myth.

Myth has many definitions from Barthes. One of them, in his book Mythologies — “A natural thing that empties reality and presents itself as non-politicized languages of human complexity”. But from what I understand, myths tend to be present as conventions of social values. If Myth gives meaning to a form, and this form usually contains nothing or is empty, Barthes’s semiotic model shows that Myth is present as the second level from the first level, which is certainly not an empty form or a form that does not contain anything.

With Myth, Barthes’s attempted to see the meaning of language at a continuity, which he calls “collectively accepted meaning”. In addition, Barthes’ semiotics also mentions music as a form of popular culture that has its meaning, but as he says in his book Image-Music-Text (1977) — ” To get a representation of music, one must submit to the performing arts of drama”. Not so fascinating, as this rather shows music needs other elements and cannot stand on its own when applied with semiotic analysis.

Tried other readings from Barthes — however, music doesn’t seem to be a major concern in his semiotics, and conveniently enough when music is confronted with his semiotic system will it be at the same issues stated above with Pierce’s semiotic. There are two levels of Barthes’ semiotic system, the first level is called denotative and the second level is called connotative. The first level with a denotative sign consists of a signifier and a signified. Moreover, the denotative sign is integrated with the connotative sign. Example: Only if you know the sign of ‘feet’, then connotations such as inferiority, servitude, and impure become possible.

Barthes’s model.

Barthes’ two-level model of semiotic he also termed as a plane of language. The first level (colored) is meaning and the second level (colorless) is form. Meaning can be seen as the last term of the linguistic system, as well as the initial term in Myth. Signified he called the concept. The sign appears in the first level as something ambiguous, and when it continues in the second level, it cannot be called a sign again and turns into a symbol because it has been justified.

The lowest part or Myth is a combination of the two previous planes of language elements and is called significance. According to Barthes, the two signifiers at the first level (note: uppercase and lowercase intended for distinction), the signifier part is ambiguous, while the SIGNIFIER has been understood in the eye, has a sensory reality, in contrast to the mental signifier. At the first level, the meaning has been completed either based on knowledge, memory, ideas, facts, or decisions. But when it continues to the second level, meaning goes emptying itself and only becomes letters, words — without any historical ties to any related meaning like the first level.

However — simply put, at the second level, we will meet paradoxes and abnormal changes from meaning to form. The word “feet” for example in the first level carries a rich meaning, but at the second level, it “waited” for new meanings to fill itself as a word “feet”. For Barthes, emptying the meaning for the new meaning is a paradox. In his explanation — “One believes that the meaning is going to die, but it is a death with reprieve; the meaning loses its value but keeps its life, from which the form of the myth will draw its nourishment. The meaning will be for the form like an instantaneous reserve of history, a tamed richness, which it is possible to call and dismiss in a sort of rapid alternation: the form must constantly be able to be rooted again in the meaning and to get there what nature it needs for its nutriment; above all, it must be able to hide there. It is this constant game of hide-and-seek between the meaning and the form which defines myth”.

The nature of Barthes’ semiotic system, even though more complex, and in Barthes’ argument regarding a second-order SIGNIFIER requiring sensory reality or a perceivable object, which to be in the form of material object — again, fall into the same issues as Peirce’s object or referent, presented by the example of music: the sound of coins ringing, sounds invisible vibration. This is Barthes’s semiotic demand of sensory reality to make our analysis rational enough. Barthes’ semiotics at a point contradicts the dynamic nature and uncertainty of language meaning in Saussure’s semiotic, and according to Saussure — a relationship between a signifier and a real object cannot be explained rationally.

Nöth (1995) said — Barthes, who is known as a critic of French literature, is more interested in architecture, food, cars, and clothing from French. I believe there is a reason for Barthes not mentioning much about music in his study of semiotic. To give a simple notion, music is a universal language — can run the risk of getting caught up in the quest for meaning that condenses into a questionable collectivity. The Myth level which is a convention of particular social values, especially with the orientation of Barthes’s structuralist semiotic studies and often reflects on French culture alone, does not contain the meaning of music in various social life and values just slightly wider — outside one’s region. That being said, Barthes’ semiotic is more suitable for analysis paired in terms of material objects.

Saussure’s dyadic model.

Is Saussure the winner of this contestation? Saussure’s dyadic model states that language as a sign consists of a signifier which according to Saussure is a sound-image or image-language that has a signified. This signified goes in the form of concepts, meanings, and representations of the signifier. To take note here, an object for Saussure is the same term as Pierce — which is a referent. But for Saussure, the referent is an advanced reality, namely a sign that has not been achieved in the personal dialectical process of signifier and signified. Furthermore, Saussure’s concept of an object it’s not required to be present in material elements, but can only be psychological. The signifier is in the form of sound-image that is only sensory, even if it is said to be material, it is only in the sensory impression of the five human senses, and if one tries to use or follow the concept outside of this, it will become increasingly abstract.

Language for Saussure is like a piece of music. His semiotic with signifier element sound-image has become a specific study of semiotics that is used as a reference in various studies — even multidisciplinary studies outside of semiotics. Saussure is deserved to be said, “the founder of modern linguistics” (then goes Noam Chomsky) — because immense studies of language, signs, and semiotics that developed throughout the years, subsequently derivatives from Saussure.

However, to apply a language that is also diverse, “the language” of music is reasonable when confronted with Saussure’s semiotic theory — with its paradigm of non-material. Saussure also comes with a more inclusive impression in his semiotic, by presenting sound-image as the definition of the signifier, say making a blind and deaf person still able to carry out semiotics, now that the reality of objects is perceived in diverse.

To be continued…

Note: There are different use of the terms regarding semiotic. Saussure and Barthes use the term semiology/sémiologie. While Peirce is semiotic/semeiotics. The use of the term semiotic for all figures stated is only for the simpler writing purpose of an introduction. References are put for further reading.


Barthes, Roland. 1972. Mythologies. Translated by: Annette Lavers. United Kingdom: Jonathan Cape Ltd.

Barthes, Roland. 1990. Image-Music-Text. Translated by: Stephen Heath. London: Fontana Press.

Culler, Jonathan D. 1986. Ferdinand de Saussure. United States: Cornell University Press.

Djohan. 2020. Psikologi Musik (translated: Music Psychology). Yogyakarta: Kanisius.

Daylight, Russell. 2014. The Difference Between Semiotics and Semiology. Gramma Journal of Theory and Criticism, 20, 37–50.

Elicker, Martina. 1997. Semiotics of Popular Music. Germany: Laupp & Göbell.

Kaelan. 2017. Filsafat Bahasa Semiotika dan Hermeneutika (translated: The Philosophy of Semiotic Language and Hermeneutic). Yogyakarta: Paradigma Press.

Liszka, James Jakob. 1996. A General Introduction to the Semiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nöth, Winfred. 1995. Handbook of Semiotics. United States: Indiana University Press.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1934. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Translated by: J. M. Krois. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.