Introduction

Anyone living in western culture has an unconscious understanding of tonal music. It is all around us: pop songs on the radio and in the supermarket, advertisers’ jingles, phone rings, soundtracks to films and tv programmes, as well as in the more immediate settings of the concert hall or discotheque. Without necessarily knowing anything theoretical of how music is put together, we can feel when a piece comes to an end or if there is likely to be more; if it is sad, merry, wistful, violent; concordant or discordant; univocal or dialogic. We may also recognise when the main melody returns, and if it is the same or changed in some way; if the composer is quoting, or drawing upon some other musical motif in our shared tradition; or if s/he is being ironic or humorous.   

These are not purely subjective judgements. Western tonal music is a semiotic code that we imbibe unconsciously, in much the same way that we imbibe our mother tongue. We are inside it; we feel and experience it, and ‘know’ its rules instinctively even if we’ve never studied its grammar. So even though there is an element of subjectivity to our response (a piece of music may remind us of a particular person or occasion, for example, or elicit an emotional response that has its roots deep down in our individual psyche), there are other layers of meaning that are culturally determined and shared by everyone that has grown up in a similar auditory environment.

Other aspects are deeper still and have their origins in the universe (the concept of harmony, for example) or the human body – the ebb and flow of energy levels, the rhythms set by our heartbeat and breathing, the pitch and volume of the human voice, and the range of frequencies detectable to the ear. Some of these aspects are common to the other arts, producing a repertoire of potential signs that can be productively exploited in the intersemiotic translation process.

This course makes this implicit knowledge conscious through a series of listening exercises and discussions designed to show how music operates as a semiotic system. It suggests that music is analogous to verbal language in the way it construes meaning – essentially through a process of negotiation between producer and receiver/interpreter within a particular sociocultural context –  and that it is this fundamental overlap which allows intersemiotic translation to take place.  

Opportunity will be given throughout the course to discuss the way that certain musical features (such as tempo, rhythm, pitch, volume or timbre) might be reproduced in other sign systems, such as drawing, mime or dance, as a prelude to the final activity, the production of a new creative work (an intersemiotic translation) in another artist medium.

After the course, an exhibition session will be organized in order to present the various translations created and discuss the implications of the exercise with a broader public.