The Semantics of Sound

Day to day, I am bombarded with words. It’s amazing, really, how humans have wound and knotted letters into vast constellations of languages. We tell stories, express feelings, discuss maneuvers, warn of danger, etc., and I cannot imagine a day without access to words, both written and spoken.

I remember first listening to Richard Wagner’s overture to the Tannhäuser, a instrumental summary of the opera to follow. There were no words (not like it would matter; I don’t speak German), but the sounds still conveyed the narrative. A narrative that everyone in the class experienced, despite our ignorance of the story. How is that possible? When a composer sits down to tell a story, what do they have in their bag of tricks to communicate that narrative? How might you substitute the foundations of language, like nouns and verbs, for sounds and yet build a composition that communicates a clear meaning?

And thus began a search to discover how music (lyrics) communicates specific meanings to listeners.


It seems natural to turn to language. Although it has its shortcomings and its challenges, language is our most basic means of communication.


1a : the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses)
b : the part of grammar dealing with this
2: a connected or orderly system : harmonious arrangement of parts or elements <the syntax of classical architecture>
-Meriam-Webster dictionary

The left image is a brain scan while a subject listens to words, and the right image is a brain scan while a subject listens to music. The circled area is the auditory cortex. (Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind, pg. 147)

The left image is a brain scan while a subject listens to words, and the right image is a brain scan while a subject listens to music. The circled area is the auditory cortex. (Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind, pg. 147)

Neither language nor music is a haphazard pile of words or notes. They both involve “perceptually discrete elements organized into hierarchically structured sequences” 3. The mind uses syntactic knowledge to transform information so that “a linear sequence of elements is perceived in terms of hierarchical relations that convey organized patterns of meaning.”3 For example, certain elements constrain “how individual tones, simultaneous tones (i.e. intervals and chords) and durations of tones are arranged to form meaningful musical phrases.”2 An individual’s ability to detect many of these regularities seems to be inherent. Studies have shown that even participants who are not trained and familiar with specific musical concepts such as major–minor tonal syntax process this musical information surprisingly rapidly and accurately.2

This innate ability indicates some kind of biological relevance for humans, and we actually use our musical abilities every day. For example, many languages are tonal, so changes in pitch lead to changes in word meaning.2 Consider how as young English-speakers we are taught to speaker higher at the end of the question. We unconsciously detect the the rhythmic and acoustic effects of language, because it reveals the structure and the meaning of speech.

Research has revealed that the brain “processes music and language with overlapping cognitive mechanisms, in overlapping cerebral structures.” 2 For example, by using an fMRI, researchers have discovered that processing the sound of an unexpected chord activates the posterior temporal regions (part of the Wernicke’s area, a region crucial to the semantic processing of language).2 Indeed, the brain’s activity in such a situation is quite similar to its response when coming across an word that does not fit the syntactic properties of a sentence.2

 Aniruddh D. Patel. “Language, music, syntax and the brain" pg. 675

Aniruddh D. Patel. “Language, music, syntax and the brain” pg. 675


Words and music are, after all, very different forms of expression. Let’s consider syntax. Language dictates that words combine in particular ways, and therefore layers of meaning can be built upon those grammatical structures.4 On the other hand, “even if there is such a thing as a musical grammar, the rules seem more flexible and ambiguous than the syntactic rules used in language. Ambiguity is a key element of the grammar and aesthetics of music” [Besson & Schšn p. 273].

It is not as specific; “Units of language denote specific semantic concepts, whereas units of music can (but do not always) pick out semantic concepts at a much coarser grain.” 4 Furthermore, there is a limit to the complexity of the conveyed meaning in music. Language dictates that words combine in particular ways, and meaning is built upon those structures.4

If we are to get right down to it, language exists for communication, whereas the foundations of music were not built on semantics. Day to day, we use language to express meaning veridically. On the other hand, composers and performers are not bound to that aim. They are free to communicate a particular meaning through their music…or not.

Yet, this lack of semantic structure is what gives music freedom. “The ambiguity and flexibility of musical meaning allows music to mean different things to different people, different things at different times, or even to mean many things at once…This semantic flexibility and fluidity creates a form of meaning that is part of the uniqueness and importance of music.”4


Vilayanur S. Ramachandran outlined his research into the links between brain structure and function. In the fourth lecture of the series he describes the phenomena of synesthesia in which people experience, for example, sounds in terms of colors, or sounds in terms of tastes. (3)

The Bouba-Kiki Effect

The Bouba-Kiki Effect

Synesthetic cross modal abstraction:

The human brain consistently attaches abstract meaning to sounds and shapes, and so some sounds can be associated with certain physical characteristics. For example, the quality of the word “cut” is similar to the physical shape it describes. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran called this the ‘Bouba/kiki effect’, and he constructed an experiment to suggesting that the human brain somehow attaches abstract meanings to the shapes and sounds in a consistent way. In an experiment, he displayed a picture of a pointed shape or a picture of a curvy, bobbly shape and asked subjects to identify it as bouba or kiki (both nonsense words). 95% to 98% of people identified the blob shape as bouba and the spiky shape as kiki.

Built in preexisting cross activation:

This occurs when wires are crossed. Sometimes the activation of one area of the brain can affect physically adjacent areas. Ramachandran observed that the area of the brain that controls the muscles around the mouth are next to the vision center. This, he claimed, might be why “certain words appear to make our mouth imitate the thing we are describing. Examples of this might be words like ‘teeny weeny’, ’diminutive’ to describe small things; ‘large’ or ‘enormous’ to describe big things.” (3)

Corporeal sound symbolism (a.k.a. expressive symbolism):

Grunt. Cough. Hiccup. These are non-segmentable sounds that do not play a syntactic role, and they can express or reflect the internal state of the speaker.

Synesthetic sound symbolism

Sometimes varying the quality of a sound can indicate meaning. For example, speakers raise intonation to mark the end of a question, and a deeper voice can symbolize largeness.

…“English speakers can “sing” a single word: depending on the intonation pattern (the starting pitch, and whether the pitch rises, falls, falls then rises, or rises then falls) the connotation of the word can be involved or detached, emotional or unemotional, friendly or cold, enthusiastic or sarcastic. There has been much research on synesthetic sound symbolism, but, henceforth, this paper will deal no more with it.” 5

Imitative sound symbolism:

Imitative sound symbols include onomatopoeia (we were all introduced to this one years ago), but this kind of symbolism is even more broad that. Imitative sound symbols range from “wild” to “tame.”

“A wild symbol, such as frrrrppp, breaks the phonetic or orthographic conventions of a language. Wild symbols are not often included in dictionaries. Tame symbols, such as click, represent sounds in a conventional way, and their use in writing is fully accepted. An imitative sound symbol can often play a wider grammatical role than a corporeal sound symbol.” 5

Phonesthetic sound symbolism (a.k.a. conventional sound symbolism or phonetic symbolism):

This sort of symbolism occurs when we use a phonestheme, a sound or a sound sequence that is associated with a meaning. For example, /gl/ refers to light or shining. That particular English phonesthemes is used in words such as glass, gleam, gleed (live coal), glisten, glow, glare, glent (glean, shine), glimmer, glimpse, glister, glitter, glim (shine, gleam), gloat, gloom, gloss, glaze {from gaze, glare, glance}, glint {ablaut variant of glent}, glower {blend of glow, glare, glance, lower}, glade (a open passage through a wood; a grassy open or cleared space in a forest).5


Stefan Koelsch. Brain and Music. pg. 157

Stefan Koelsch. Brain and Music. pg. 157

There are plenty of ways a composer can communicate ideas through sound.

Extra-musical meaning: emerges from the interpretation of music with reference to the extra-musical world. 1

Iconic musical meaning: when musical patterns resemble the sounds of objects, the qualities of objects, or even the qualities of abstract concepts.1 The sound of a stream or footsteps on pavement, for example.

Indexical musical meaning:”signals indicating the inner state of an individual.” 1 This meaning is communicated by imitating the physical signs of emotion or intention, such as vocalizations or even gesture. “For example, in a stressed individual, the vocal tract contracts, leading to a higher degree of acoustic roughness in vocalization as compared to the vocalization uttered in a relaxed state.” 1 Studies by Fritz et al (2009) show that there is a universal recognition of basic emotional expression (i.e. joy, sadness, fear) in music.

Symbolic Meaning: conventional extra-musical associations (i.e. the national anthem).1

Intra-musical: meaning gleaned from processing the structure of the composition. Meaning can be attached to the relationships between notes. For example, there is more stability in “a harmonic structure consisting of chords of the harmonic core.”1

Musicogenic meaning: the individual’s response to music. A listener will respond not only to the information expressed by the composer, but they will also have a personal response to the music.1

Physical: Movement in response to and in synchrony with the music. Not to be confused with movement in response to an emotion (like smiling or crying). Physical meaning is expressed when you compose your movements, such as tapping your feet, singing, playing an instrument, clapping, dancing, etc.1

Emotional: When emotions are evoked by music. One can experience a prioiri musical meaning, in which “the evocation of emotions with music has important implications for the specificity of meaning conveyed by music as opposed to language.” 1

Personal: Having a personal response, relating to your inner-self; you might recognize yourself in the music.

The upside of this research: I’ve started listening to songs more carefully, noticing bits and pieces of sound. My iPod is rich with a tapestry of meaning that I never noticed before! The downside? I’ve come to find that some artists have not used their sound effects wisely, and…well… I’m just not that into them anymore. Whomp.


1. Koelsch, Stefan. Brain and Music. John Wiley & Sons, Mar 22, 2012. pgs. 156-181.

2. Koelsch, Stefan. “Neural substrates of processing syntax and semantics in music.” Current Opinion in Neurobiology 2005, 15:1–6. Accessed 12 August 2013.

3. Patel, Aniruddh D. “Language, music, syntax and the brain.” Nature Neuroscience 6, 674 – 681 (2003). Published online 25 June 2003. Accessed 8 August 2013.

4. Patel, Aniruddh D. and Robert Slevc. “Meaning in music and language: Three key differences: Comment on ‘Towards a neural basis of processing musical semantics’ by Stefan Koelsch”. Physics of Life Reviews, Volume 8, Issue 2, June 2011. pages 110-111. Accessed 10 August 2013.

5. Shisler, Benjamin K. “The Influence of Phonesthesia on the English Language.” 1997. Accessed 13 August 2013.


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