Discourses in Music: Volume 4 Number 1 (Fall 2002)

Naomi Cumming. The Sonic Self: Musical Subjectivity and Signification. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000. [370p. ISBN 0-253-33754-2]

Most of what I have read about musical meaning has left me with a feeling of unease, if not disappointment. So many of the musings on the meaning, content, cognition, or semiotics of music seem to be strangely disconnected from what I believe is the essence of music itself, that is, the action of making music. Due to Western notation, and more recently recording technology, music has gained a strange disembodied state; we look for meaning in the reception or consumption of sounds or even the sounds themselves, rather than in the human actions and interactions that produce them. I initially explored some of these issues in the field of music psychology, a search that culminated in my article "Movement and Metaphor: Towards an Embodied Theory of Musical Cognition and Hermeneutics" (Walker 2000). More recently, motivated by the undercurrent of interest in semiotics among the graduate students at University of Toronto, I began to wonder if this complex conception of communication might be capable of integrating mental and physical modes of thought into its analysis. This is indeed what this thought-provoking book, The Sonic Self: Music Subjectivity and Signification by Australian violinist Naomi Cumming, achieves.

The Sonic Self opens with Cumming's own experiences learning the violin as a child in London, England and then as a teenager in Melbourne, Australia. Beginning with the sensory and sonic mysteries with which she was faced when teachers urged her to "Emote! Emote!" (p. 3), she takes the timbral qualities of the violin and the human qualities that teachers, performers and critics associate with various timbres as a launching pad for her inquiry into musical meaning. She turns to semiotics as the most logical "language for describing an area of ... activity whose creations are neither purely material nor purely mental" (p.28). Cumming enthusiastically defends the subjective response usually rejected by scholars and dishes up multiple examples of language about music in which subjectivity is not only an accepted, but a necessary part of discourse. Her "sonic self" is the "individual 'subject-position,' or personal point of view, within a broader social and semiotic framework" (p.290). The book is organized through a full circle, travelling from Cumming's individual experiences in the "Introduction" through dense discussions of semiotic theory ("Musical Signs" and "Naming Qualities; Hearing Signs") and their application to specific musical experiences ("Gesturing," "Framing Willfulness in Tonal Law" and "Complex Syntheses"). The penultimate section broadens to discuss "Culturally Embedded Signs" before the book closes, once again, on an individual note: "Values and Personal Categories." On the way, Cumming deals not only with Peirce, but also Cartesian philosophy, psychology, Schenkerian theory, metaphor, synaesthesia and aesthetics.

Sorting through the terrifying tangle of tripartites in Peircean semiotic theory can drive one into the sherry bottle in frustration. Cumming's presentation, not only of icon, index and symbol, but of the further referential categories of qualisign, sinsign and legisign, rheme, discant and argument are possibly the clearest I have read. She recognizes the awkwardness of Peirce's proclivity for neologisms, but defends their creation on the grounds that any existing words would have external associations that Peirce wished to avoid. Nonetheless and very thankfully, her own writing is refreshingly clear of coined words and dense grammatical constructions. She does have a fondness for "scare quotes" that tends to pull the reader out of the flow of prose, but perhaps because she uses very common examples (a cry, a tonal cadence, or an Australian kangaroo crossing sign), one comes through her explanation of semiotic terminology quite unscarred.

One of the problems that anyone attempting to formulate a semiosis of music faces is the application, or adaptation of concepts that are originally linguistic to a medium of expression that is non-verbal. In the semiology of language, the tripartation between sign, object and interpretant is relatively straightforward. A word (the sign) in my own language has an immediate reference to something else (perhaps a physical object, but perhaps something less tangible - a feeling, a belief, a concept); the word gives rise to meaning (interpretant) in my mind, connected not only with the object itself, but also shaped by my understanding and experience, both personal and cultural. The difficulty in applying this basic trichotomy to music is in deciding to which properties of the musical experience these lables should be applied. If the sound is the object, then what is the sign? If the sound is the sign, then how do we explain non-referential music? But musical sound does not exist without intentional human action to produce it. Thus the most basic difficulty in formulating a semiology of music, is that, unlike a word, or a kangaroo crossing sign, musical meaning exists only through action and changes with each performance.

Peirce takes the sign-object-interpretant triangle and re-interprets the three concepts more broadly as firstness, secondness and thirdness. Firstness is the sign, secondness, the object to which it refers and thirdness, the interpretants that arise in the human mind. The concepts of firstness, secondness and thirdness then allow a multiplicity of trichotomies based on the same relationships.1 The difficulty in applying these terms to music always seems to lie in the realm of secondness - is there, or are there objects to which musical sound, particularly non-texted instrumental sound, refers? Can we say that music itself somehow exists as an object, at a "neutral level" as Nattiez (1990) explains it? Martinez (1997) solves the problem by calling the musical performance secondness, but then he is left with the somewhat unconvincing "perception" as firstness. Without the performance, there is nothing to perceive.

This is where The Sonic Self stands out as a musical semiology that really works. Cumming consistently approaches every question posed by Peirce from a musician's perspective. To her, music is not only sound, but the experience of making the sound and the experience of the potential elusiveness of communicative sound. She focusses on timbre, an element of music inextricable from performance, instead of elements such as pitch, rhythm or form that can be frozen as objects. Quoting Peirce, she takes his description of each sign as "a May-be" (firstness), "an Actual" (secondness) or "a Would-be" (thirdness) and classifies musical significations as displaying "more of the characteristics of Peirce's 'first' and 'third' categories than they do of his 'second' one" (Cumming 2000, 79). She deals with the problem of secondness, therefore, simply by saying that it is not applicable to musical signification. A good example is found in one discussion of index:

A relatively "strong" sound, within a classic tradition of violin playing, may index the high degree of force used by the player; a soft and wispy sound may suggest the position of the violinist's bow - right over the fingerboard. These indices of physical creation are not, however, to be heard simply as indications of the mode of production, except in a didactic setting. When used deliberately, they retain the capacity to suggest altered affective states [i.e. icon, not index] (Cumming 2000, 91).

Indexical meaning, although it exists, does not point to a meaningful signification in this case. Musical meaning is emergent rather than factual. Cumming therefore focusses on firstness, iconicity primarily through timbre, but expands Peirce's initial category to include levels of meaning, such as rules and conventions, that he reserved for his third category.

Her neglect of "thirdness" is, I believe, neatly explained by her concentration on a single instrument within a single music culture. Her chapter on "Culturally Embedded Signs" deals with Western stylistic cultures, not World Music. This is by no means a weakness of the work, but it would seem that symbolism in music is tied to broader cultural concepts, and perhaps not really visible through Cumming's subjective lens. It is her subjectivity, however, that is the strength of the book. She always begins and ends with music - not "the music itself" in a disembodied sense, but music as experienced through the actions and reactions of Cumming as a musician herself. This is a unique and personal, yet extremely intelligent and well-written exploration of musical meaning. It comes as a heart-break, therefore, to read in the forward that Naomi Cumming died suddenly at the age of only thirty-eight shortly after completing the manuscript for The Sonic Self.

-Margaret Walker


Martinez, Josť Luiz. 1997. Semiosis in Hindustani Music. Imatra: International Semiotics Institute.

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. 1990. Music and Discourse: Towards a Semiology of Music. Translated by Carolyn Abbate. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Walker, Margaret. 2000. "Movement and Metaphor: Towards an Embodied Theory of Music Cognition and Hermeneutics." CRME Bulletin 145. 27-42.


1. The aforementioned icon, index and symbol; qualisign, sinsign and legisign; rheme, discant and argument.