Musical Meaning and the Semiotic Hierarchy: Towards a Cognitive Semiotics of Music


  • Gabriele Giacosa University of Cologne



Research on the meaning of music has a long tradition, with approaches from several fields, but it lacks a coherent framework for interdisciplinary discussions. As a result, the notion of meaning in music is fragmented among contrasting perspectives. I propose a cognitive-semiotic approach to the analysis of the meaning evoked by music listening, adopting a framework that eludes disciplinary limitations and expands the notion of meaning to the phenomenological concept of intentionality. For this purpose, I apply Zlatev’s Semiotic Hierarchy to the experience of listening to music, analysing the diversity of meaning-making processes involved in music as distributed among several layers of experience. As a result, I propose an updated version of the Semiotic Hierarchy, clarifying its structure as based on possibilities of meaning-making, and allowing for temporality to pervade experience throughout all layers. I highlight the connectedness and simultaneity of different kinds of intentionality, resulting in the addition of the dimension of aesthetic experience – which I analyze as characterizing culture-general music listening. A key claim is that experiencing music aesthetically articulates the listener’s body in their inner sense of space and time, making them feel a sense of movement and vitality. This grounds music as a semiotic system, connecting with and fostering virtually uncountable subject-relative and culture-specific meaning-making acts.

Author Biography

Gabriele Giacosa, University of Cologne

Gabriele Giacosa is a PhD candidate at the University of Cologne, and a collegiate member of the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School. He is working on a transdisciplinary project at the intersection of systematic musicology, phenomenology, and cognitive semiotics, under the supervision of Prof. Uwe Seifert (University of Cologne), Prof. Jordan Zlatev (Lund University), and Prof. Shigeru Taguchi (Hokkaido University). Gabriele holds a R.MA in Musicology from Utrecht University and a BA in DAMS (Music) from the University of Turin. His research interests span from the philosophy of music and aesthetics to cognitive science, with a focus on music, language and meaning.




How to Cite

Giacosa, G. (2023). Musical Meaning and the Semiotic Hierarchy: Towards a Cognitive Semiotics of Music. Public Journal of Semiotics, 10(2), 16–39.