Version 2.5.2 (2013-12-11/2015-03-21/2018-08-26); 710 pages A5 ebook ISBN 978-0-9701684-5-0;
Music’s Meanings: recommendations
“In addressing a pedagogical problem ―how to talk about music as if it meant
something other than itself –
Philip Tagg raises fundamental questions about
western epistemology as well as some of its strategically
With an unsurpassed authority in the field, the author draws on a lifetime of critical
reflection on the experience of music, and how to communicate it without resorting to
This is a must-read book for anyone interested in music,
for whatever reason: students, teachers, researchers, performers, industry and
policy stakeholders, or just to be able to talk intelligently about the musical experience.”
(Bruce Johnson, Macquarie University, Australia; University of Turku, Finland; Glasgow University, UK)
“Today I downloaded your e-book Music’s Meanings and I find it simply fantastic.
I am writing my BA thesis on film music (I am a film student) and only last minute
did I find out that music semiology might be of much help. Without enough time
to dig into the library again, your book helped me find which parts of semiotics would be useful for my thesis.
Also, you couldn’t explain the concepts more clearly,
more vividly and with more humour. You make it really easy to read the otherwise
rather dry and complex theories.
Thank you for writing this... and for offering it online.”
(email from student at the University of Amsterdam, 2012-12-12)
Music’s Meanings “is absolutely not ‘Musicology for Dummies’. Trained musicians will get as much
out of its 700 pages as the rest of us, and find it just as challenging, just as skilled
painters are just as likely to profit as others are from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing,
the comparison which most easily springs to mind... [T]his volume is not only for proponents of “Popular Music Studies” like myself.
The wide-ranging and fruitful fields of cultural history and of cultural studies in general
have often sidelined musical activity, for lack of concepts and methods to understand
music as a socially-constructed activity. This book deserves to be a seminal text which
will help allow the integration of music into these fields, and the omnipresence of music
in modern lives indicates sufficiently the desirability of such a change.”
(John Mullen’s review in Quaderna, 2014-03-13)
"Music's Meanings changed my life, and has influenced the way I've experienced everything for the past five years or so... I can't count how many people from my conservatory —students, faculty, and even the dean— are now proponents of the Philip Tagg teaching. You'd be surprised how many conservatories have deans who are centuries ahead of the music theory department, and are trying to wrestle their tenured faculty into the present."
(email from graduate student, St Louis (MI), 2019-09-10).
Music’s Meanings “provides no potted accounts of composers, artists, genres or of the music industry. It won’t help you bluff your way through conversations about jazz, folk, rap, rock, dubstep, classical music or ‘world music’. And it never claims the superiority of one type of music over another... Its job is to present, in terms accessible to the average university student, ways of understanding the phenomenon of music as a meaningful system of sonic representation.” (from the Preface)
I wrote Music’s Meanings for anyone interested in music who wants to understand how it expresses much more than just itself. This work is based on decades of teaching subjects like Popular Music Analysis and Music and the Moving Image to two sorts of student: those learning under a MUSIC AND NOTHING ELSE régime and students from more of an EVERYTHING EXCEPT THE MUSIC background. The musical competence of 'non-musos' was an important driving force in this attempt to bridge that gap and to open up the SOUNDs of music to those who don't know what subdominants or sawtooth waves are. I've reduced such 'gobbledygook' to an absolute minimum and no note-reading skill is needed.
After the theoretical first part, Music’s Meanings is substantially didactic. It explains things like how to denote a musical structure without specialist jargon, how to use intertextual techniques and reception tests, how to describe voice, and how to identify which aspect of the music has which connotations for which reasons, etc. It also provides simple explanations of music's parameters of expression and of how they can be heard to produce meaning. Examples are drawn from a wide variety of musical repertoires.
I hope that those who tend to avoid 'the music' in discourse about music will, 'having read the book' (Beatles, 1967), engage with it instead. Since their 'non-muso' competence has certainly influenced my view of what music studies ought to become, I am convinced that my fellow 'musos' will also find food for thought in these pages.
If you've been using writings like Introductory Notes to the Semiotics of Music (Tagg, 1997) or Towards a Musical Sign Typology (1991), please be aware that Music’s Meanings entirely replaces those old texts with better explanations, more substantive conceptualisation and more suggestions for practical application. Much of the book consists of ideas and procedures that I had never previously had time to write up in any coherent form. Most of those ideas and procedures derive from teaching experience, but some I had to develop more or less from scratch in order to sort out some central problems in discourse about music (e.g. the sections on emotion, affect, feeling, mood and metaphor in Chapter 2 and the whole of Chapters 11 and 12 on the two main aspects of musical 'form').
Music’s Meanings: contents
Preface (34 pp.) —Theoretical, practical, personal, educational and biographical background to the book; aims of the book; Ten Little Title Tunes and this book; overview of chapters; formal explanations (appendices, typographical conventions, footnotes, etc).
Chapter 1 —How much music?— (10 pp.) estimates the importance of music in terms of time and money in the everyday life of people living in the urban West.
Chapter 2 —'The most important thing'…— (40 pp.) starts with definitions of and axioms about ‘music’, including the concept of concerted simultaneity, the non-antagonistic contradiction between intra- and extrageneric notions of music, and the tenet that music is no more universal a language than language itself. After an intercultural comparison of words denoting what we call ‘music’ and a short history of the concept in European thinking, music’s relation to other modes of human expression is discussed. That section includes observations from the anthropology of human evolution, from child psychology, from studies of cross-domain representation and synaesthesis, and from the cognitive neuroscience of music. The chapter ends with an attempt to sort out how concepts like emotion, affect, feeling, mood and metaphor relate to music.
Chapter 3 —The epistemic oil tanker— (52 pp.) confronts the notion of ‘absolute music’ head on, tracing its history, demystifying its articles of faith, including those of its latter-day ‘postmodernist’ counterpart, and deconstructing its ideological implications. The chapter’s second part identifies institutional splits in musical knowledge (poïetic v. aesthesic etc.) that exacerbate the polarities of dual consciousness. It also explains why notation was for such a long time considered the only valid storage medium in conventional music studies.
Chapter 4 —Ethno, socio, semio— (24 pp.) discusses the three main disciplinary challenges to conventional music studies in the twentieth century: ethnomusicology, the sociology of music and the semiotics of music. It highlights their contribution, real or potential, to developing the sort of music analysis covered in Part 2, underlining the importance of ethnomusicology and empirical sociology, and discusses the problems of music semiotics in dealing with semantics and pragmatics.
Chapter 5 —Meaning and communication— (40 pp.) is the book's semiotic theory chapter. It explains key concepts like semiotics, semiology, semiosis (object - sign - interpretant), semantics, syntax, pragmatics, sign type (icon - index - arbitrary sign), denotation, connotation, connotative precision, polysemy, transmitter, receiver, codal incompetence and codal interference. All these concepts are essential to the adequate treatment of the book’s main analytical question: how does who communicate what through music to whom and with what effect?
Chapter 6 —Intersubjectivity— (34 pp.) presents the first of two main approaches to discussing the meaning of a musical analysis object. Six reasons for prioritising the aesthesic rather than poïetic pole are followed by a brief presentation of how ethnographic observations can help in the semiotic analysis of music. The bulk of this chapter deals with reception tests, the categorisation of verbal-visual associations (VVAs), the establishment of paramusical fields of connotation (PMFCs) and other important steps in the collection and collation of response data. The chapter ends with a section on the use of library music in systematising reception test responses.
Chapter 7 —Interobjectivity— (34 pp.) covers the second set of approaches to the investigation of meaning in music. After the definition of essential terms (object, structure, museme) the two-stage process of interobjective comparison is explained, complete with tips about collecting interobjective comparison material (IOCM) and about the establishment of paramusical fields of connotation (PMFC). Verification procedures (recomposition, commutation) are also explained and the chapter ends with a section that should definitely allay non-muso anxiety about the designation of structural elements in a piece of music as an essential part of analysis procedure.
Parameters of expression
Chapter 8 —Terms, time & space— (42 pp.) is the first of four to focus on parameters of expression, i.e. on poïetic factors determining how music sounds and what it potentially communicates. A short first part presents paramusical parameters (audience, venue, lyrics, images, etc.) and their role in the construction of musical meaning. It also includes explanations of basic terms essential to subsequent discussion— genre, style, note, pitch, tone, timbre and the extended present. Most of this chapter is devoted to simple explanations of temporal-spatial parameters of expression, including duration, phrase, motif, period, episode, speed, pulse, beat, subbeat, tempo, surface rate, rhythm, accentuation, metre and groove. It ends with a section on aural staging, i.e. the placement of different sounds in different (or similar) types of acoustic space, both in relation to each other and as a whole in relation to the listener.
Chapter 9 —Timbre, loudness and tone— (32 pp.) covers the second set of parameters of musical expression. After reviewing instrumental timbre (vocal timbre is covered in Chapter 10) and how it creates meaning, an overview of acoustic devices and digital effects units explains everything from pizzicato and vibrato to distortion, filtering, phasing, limiting and gating. Then, after a short section dealing with loudness, volume and intensity, the rest of the chapter provides a rudimentary guide to all things tonal, including pitch, octave, register, interval, mode, key, tonic, melody, tonal polyphony, heterophony, homophony, counterpoint, harmony, chords and chord progressions.
Chapter 10 — Vocal persona — (40 pp.) concentrates on one complex of parameters of musical expression whose meaningful details non-musos tend to identify and label more easily than do musos. These aesthesic and vernacular characterisations of spoken and singing voices are sorted into a taxonomy including descriptors of vocal costume, as well as those derived from demographics, professions, psychological and narrative archetypes. Practical ways of relating vocal sound to posture and attitude are explained so that its meanings can be more easily grasped and verbalised as part of semiotic analysis.
Chapter 11 —Diataxis― (34 pp.) is the first of two chapters about composite parameters of musical expression ('form'). It deals with the narrative shape and form of music’s episodes, with its diachronic, extensional and chronologically more ‘horizontal’ aspects. It focuses on concepts like verse, chorus, refrain, hook, bridge, AABA form, sonata form and the ways in which such ordering of musical episodes creates meaning.
Chapter 12 ―Syncrisis― (68 pp.) deals with the synchronic combination of sounds in music, with the intensional and chronologically more ‘vertical’ aspects of 'form', with issues of singularity, multiplicity, density and sparsity, etc. The melody-accompaniment dualism is examined as musical parallel to the perceptual grid of figure-ground in other art forms and leads to a discussion of how different types of subjectivity and patterns of social organisation can be heard in contrapuntal polyphony, heavy metal, electronic dance music, unison singing, heterophony, homophony, cross rhythm, responsorial practices, bass lines, etc., as well as in various group-type manifestations, e.g. rock bands, symphony orchestras. The chapter ends with examples of the dual figure-ground relationship heard in innumerable pop songs and title themes, and with a brief glimpse into ‘figureless’ or ‘bodiless’ types of syncrisis.
Sign types and practical application
Chapter 13 —A simple sign typology— (44 pp.) With potentially meaningful musical structures (musemes) identified and linked to possible fields of paramusical connotation, this chapter presents workable ways of checking the viability of those links. Does the museme relate to its PMFC as an anaphone through the process of gestural interconversion, or as a genre synecdoche by referring to other music and its connotations, or is it an episodic marker signifying start, end or bridge…? Or is it just a style indicator identifying a ‘home style’ in relation to other styles of music? Or is it a combination of more than one of those basic sign types?
Chapter 14 —Analysing film music— (50 pp.) The aims of this chapter, based on experience of teaching Music and the Moving Image to both musos and non-musos, are:  to provide insights into how music influences the images, action and dialogue it accompanies; and  to show how the theory and method of previous chapters can be put into practice. After underlining the importance of understanding the subject in terms of history and technology, and after presenting the subject's most useful general concepts (Lissa's film music functions as well as film-industry terms), pedagogical 'tricks' (like musical commutation) and hands-on assignments are explained, the latter including group work comparing musical moods in silent film with those used in recent feature film. Most of the chapter concentrates on the assignment 'Cue list and analysis of music in a feature film', setting out how musical ideas can be labelled (cue list, list of musical ideas, etc.), how graphic scores can be constructed, how music's functions and meanings can be coherently talked about, etc.
Glossary (26 pp.)
Reference Appendix (42 pp. in 8-point font), extensive list of verbal, musical and audiovisual references.
Many of these references include a hyperlink which will take you directly to the relevant recording on line. Other links cannot be provided for reasons of copyright legislation. I regret that in those cases readers must search the internet for the music in question if they do not happen to have it to hand.
Index (46 pp.).
Specimen extracts from Music's Meanings (updated 2013-03-08 unless stated otherwise)
― Please note that, except for the Reference Appendix, hyperlinks do not work in these specimen extracts ―
Front cover, publishing data (update 2013-03-20)
Title page, Acknowledgements and Table of Contents (10 pp.)
Preface ― background to the book, aims, overview, etc.) (34 pp.)
Chapter 7 - Interobjectivity ― on intertextual procedures and structural designation (33 pp.)
Chapter 10 - Vocal persona (39 pp.)
Glossary (pp. 581-606)
Reference Appendix (48 pp., update 2013-12-11)
Index (39 pp.)
All audio[visual] examples referred to in the text are listed in the Reference Appendix. Many of these references include a hyperlink which will take you directly to the relevant recording on line. Other links cannot be provided for reasons of copyright legislation. I regret that in those cases readers must search the internet for the music in question if they do not happen to have it to hand. Please also see near the end of the Preface for more about these issues.
Please note that several online references given in the book have been removed from the internet since publication. This is particularly true of YouTube references, notorious for their ephemerality. This problem is a great time-waster for musicologists of the popular and is usually the result of legally questionable posting and/or of rearguard action from the music publishing industry (most infamously GEMA) who, in collusion with YouTube, themselves show little or no concern for the legal practice of fair use as set out in the US Code (‘Copyright Law of the United States’, 2011), §107 (p. 19) and §118 (p. 74) , as well as in the Supreme Court ruling about transformative use (Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569, 1994). All references in Music’s Meanigs to audiovisual materials produced or edited by the book’s author are included in the book’s updated Reference Appendix.
N.B. Hyperlinks work only if you download the complete book, or if you view the updated Reference Appendix. They do not work in any of the other specimen files linked to this page.
Publication versions, feedback, errata and corrections
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