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