Peircian Semiotics

Momilani Ramstrum

 Turino, Thomas. "Signs of Imagination, Identity, and Experience: A Peircian Semiotic Theory for Music." In Ethnomusicology, 43 (2): 221- 255.


In documenting our need for music, Turino employs Charles Peirce's semiotic theory of signs to discuss music, emotion and identity. Peirce believed that all semiotic processes have three components; the sign (that which stands for something else), the object (the something else stood for by the sign) and the interpretant (the effect created by bringing the sign and the object together in the mind of the perceiver). The nature the sign and its interaction with the object and influence on the interpretant can be very direct (emotional or energetic interpretant) or mediated (language-based concepts, rational or conscious response). Turino believes that the power of music to create emotional responses and to realize personal and social identities is based in the fact that social signs are typically of the direct, less mediated type. Music, in most of the world, works at the direct emotional or physical levels without intellectual intervention. The sign-object relations (icon, index and symbol) and its interpretation (rheme, dicent and argument) is the subject of Turino's focus in this article. The symbol-argument semiotics Turino discards as less applicable to discussions of music, in as that they are mediated by language. The icon (relationship of sign to object through resemblance) -rheme (sign represents object as a possibility) approach has been studied by others and Turino directs attention to the dicent (sign represents the object in actual existence and is affected by it) -indices (sign's relationship to the object is due to co-occurence in one's own experience) components. He believes that these are among the most direct and convincing sign types and are either taken for granted (as we understand tone of voice or body language) or believed as true (as we believe a blues singer really feels what she is singing). Indices, as our connections between past experiences and signs, continually take on new layers of meaning while carrying the previous associations, what Turino calls semantic snowballing. This multilayered complexity is not processed intellectually, but simply felt. These experiences are not approachable through symbols and logic but are only available through pre-symbolic signs, directly accessed by art and music that operate on the iconic and indexical levels. That is why we need music.


Peircian Semiotics are used to explain music's power to create affect and forge social identities.
Musical signs are sonic events that create an effect in a perceiver.

Trichotomy I (of the sign itself)
1. Qualisign- quality of the thing itself as representing an object)
2. Sinsign- specific instance of the sign
3. Legisign- sign as a general type

Trichotomy II (relationship between sign and in  object)
1. Icon- sign is related to object through resemblance
2. Index- relationship between  sign and object is through co-occurrence in one's life, intimately bound in one's own personal experience
3. Symbol- relationship between sign and object is by the use of language and is usually of a general type- a legisign

Trichotomy III (how a sign is interpreted
1. rheme- sign represents an object as a possibility; e.g. unicorn
2. dicent- sign represents object actual existence and is really being affected by it's object
3. argument- usually symbolic and linguistic; not relevant to music


Three Types of Interpretants- all involve signs and perception

1. emotional (sense, feeling) interpretants- direct unreflected feeling caused by a sign
2. energetic interpretant- physical reaction caused by a sign- e.g. foot tapping
3. sign interpretant- linguistic based concept

Icon -sign is related to object through resemblance
a. image resemblance - similar qualities, e.g. musical quotation
b. diagram- analogous relations between the parts between sign and object; e. g. a map, motivic unity- musical devices such as imitation, development and sequence
c. metaphor- acceleration, rise in pitch like when voice is excited- is felt directly and not thought about. or linguistic based, e.g. a mountain of a man

Index- personal experience is varied and so indices are highly personal and variable and taken to be a true part of the experience. e.g. a theme song is tied to a TV show or a song is tied to a love affair.

Symbol- can't reproduce feeling and experiences of objects- are signs about other things and are relatively fixed through social agreement. Can look up their meaning in a dictionary or math text.

Icon and index are signs of identity and direct connection and depend on personal experience.
Symbol is sign of other things mediated by language.
Musical sounds that are signs function as icons and indices.
Signs are usually a composite of the three trichotomies- there are ten possible combinations

dicent-index- most direct and convincing signs and are interpreted as real and true, taken for granted and are a part of linguistic based signs; e.g. body language

There is an infinite unfolding in the mind of signs to objects to interpretants as object becomes sign for another object- called semantic snowballing by Turino

Firstness- oneness, quality, and possibility;
    Trichotomy I, qualisign, icon, and rheme: emotional interpretants
Secondness- existing relations and reality connections;
    Trichotomy II, sinsign, index, and dicent: energetic interpretants
Thirdness- most highly mediated signs, general signs for abstraction;

Trichotomy III, legisign, symbol, and argument: language based concepts

All semiotic processes involve thirdness ( the subject and object are brought together in the interpretant by the perceiver)
    Musical signs are three types
        1. rhematic- iconic- legisigns
        2. rhematic- indexical- legisigns
        3. dicent- indexical- legisigns

Legisign component is the general part of culture
Signs produce effects at same or lower level of interpretant types; e.g. icon (firstness) produces emotional interpretants (firstness); index (secondness) produces energetic interpretants (secondness) or emotional interpretants (firstness). icon and index won't produce higher language interpretations (thirdness)

Meaning is the effect of the sign - one of 3 interpretants; direct feeling, physical reaction, or language based response