Music as Discourse: Semiotic Adventures in Romantic Music

Music as Discourse: Semiotic Adventures in Romantic Music

Music as Discourse: Semiotic Adventures in Romantic Music

Music as Discourse: Semiotic Adventures in Romantic Music


The question of whether music has meaning has been the subject of sustained debate ever since music became a subject of academic inquiry. Is music a language? Does it communicate specific ideas and emotions? What does music mean, and how does this meaning occur?

Kofi Agawu's Music as Discourse promises to quickly become a standard and definitive work in musical semiotics. Working at the nexus of musicology, ethnomusicology, and music philosophy and aesthetics, Agawu presents a synthetic and innovative approach to musical meaning which argues deftly for the thinking of music as a discourse in itself--composed not only of sequences of gestures, phrases, or progressions, but rather also of the very philosophical and linguistic props that enable the analytical formulations made about music as an object of study. The book provides extensive demonstration of the pertinence of a semiological approach to understanding the fully-freighted language of romantic music, stresses the importance of a generative approach to tonal understanding, and provides further insight into the analogy between music and language.Music as Discoursewill be eagerly read by all who are interested in the theory, analysis and semiotics of music of the romantic period.


I am grateful to Dániel Péter Biró for comments on a draft of this book, Christopher Matthay for corrections and numerous helpful suggestions, Guillermo Brachetta for preparing the music examples, and Suzanne Ryan for advice on content and organization. It goes without saying that I alone am responsible for what is printed here.

Some of this material has been seen in other contexts. The comparison between music and language in chapter 1 is drawn from my article “The Challenge of Semiotics,” which is included in the collection Rethinking Music, edited by Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist (Oxford University Press, 1999). The analysis of Beethoven’s op. 18, no. 3, in chapter 5 appears in expanded form in Communication in EighteenthCentury Music, edited by Danuta Mirka and myself (Cambridge University Press, 2008). The analysis of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A Minor, K. 310, originated in a paper presented to a plenary session at the Society for Music Theory’s 2006 annual meeting in Los Angeles. And some of the material in chapter 4, “Bridges to Free Composition,” began life as a keynote address delivered to the International Conference on 19th-Century Music in Manchester, England, in 2005. I’m grateful for this opportunity to recontextualize these writings and talks.

A Note to the Student

This book is aimed at advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students who are interested in the practice of music analysis. A basic background in harmony and counterpoint is assumed. While it is not designed as a conventional textbook (complete with a didactic exposition of received knowledge, canonical examples, and graded exercises), this book is nevertheless meant to elicit reciprocal acts of analysis. You might, for example, examine the pattern of closure in one of Mendelssohn’s “Song’s without Words,” the high-point scheme in Wagner or Bartók, periodicity in a slow movement by Mahler or in song’s by Schubert or Schumann, the paradigmatic structure of a Chopin prelude or a string quartet movement by Beethoven, the narrative impulse in a tone poem by Liszt, or even . . .

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