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Schenker and Semiotics
The term semiotics in the field of music theory and analysis covers a wide range of approaches, many of which are discussed in Raymond Monelle's book Linguistics and Semiotics in Music (Harwood Academic Publishers, 1992). Semiotics may loosely be defined as the study of signs but is used to describe a wide range of disciplines, from the highly structuralist to much broader explorations of the nature of meaning (an excellent general site is Daniel Chandler's Semiotics for Beginners).

Schenker himself hints at a project that would now be considered broadly semiotic:

'Ultimately it will be possible to set forth a highest principle which is common to all the arts: the principle of inner tension and it's corresponding outward fulfillment' (Heinrich Schenker - Free Composition p. xxiv.)

Schenker's ideas have fed in various ways into the theories of many scholars since and it is worth giving two brief examples, although a proper discussion of these issues is well beyond the scope of this web site:

  • While Eero Tarasti's Theory of Musical Semiotics (Indiana, 1994) is more interested in Lerdahl and Jackendoff's synthesis of Schenkerian and linguistic theory, his adaptation of in particular A. J. Greimas is well suited to semiotic research into Schenker's ideas. My own current research follows this line and I would be delighted to share my ideas with anyone who might be interested (mail me).I have also written a more recent article on this topic for Res Facta Nova, which is also available on the Web: Schenkerian Analysis and Existential Semiotics

  • Robert Hatten's semiotic investigation Musical Meaning in Beethoven (1994) does not much draw on Schenkerian theory, but it is too interesting and influential not to mention. His more recent ideas can be found in a fascinating online lecture at the Cyber Semiotic Institute.

  • Robert Samuel's Mahler's Sixth Symphony (1995) includes some discussion of Schenkerian analysis although a Nattiez-like paradigmatic approach lies at the heart of this book.

  • Kofi Agawu, in his book Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classic Music (Princeton, 1991), complements his theory of 'topics' by viewing classical music in terms of a beginning-middle-end model that draws heavily on Schenker's conception of musical structure.


Jonathan Dunsby and John Stopford made an important general point as part of an appeal for recognition of the semiotic potential of Schenker's theory almost two decades ago:

Music semiotics 'must revitalise rather than exclude - and this includes the level of analytic methodology - those creative and perceptual impulses which have informed musical intuition.' (The Case for a Schenkerian Semiotic - p. 51)

For anyone tempted to dismiss Schenker's theory as hopelessly undermined by the assumptions it makes about organicism, the unity of the work of art, and the nature of listening, this statement is a reminder of an important aspect of post-modern scholarship. Even if we reject Schenker's conception of the music, his theories are a synthesis and refinement of several centuries of music theory, many of the tenets of which composers of tonal music would have shared.

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