by David Machin

Sound and Music as Communication: A Social Semiotic Approach

This series of lectures provides an introduction to the communicative use of sound, and music drawing mainly on social semiotic theories and models along with others from linguistics, the sociology of music and sound and from multimodality. Lectures introduce tools for analysing how we can use sound to communicate and demonstrate how these can be applied to the analysis of different kinds of music, film soundtracks, documentaries, radio commercials, news bulletins and so on. We look at how artists and sound designers are able to draw on certain kinds of semiotic resources in sound to communicate particular kinds of values, identities, ideas and attitudes. In this course we emphasise that the meanings we hear in sounds are put there by us, through socially established conventions and other kinds of associations. The aim of the course is to develop an understanding of how we can describe and document these conventions and associations and then use them systematically to generate our own ‘sound acts’. We begin by looking at some of the discourses that tend to dominate the way that we talk and think about sound. We then move on to look at how we can break down and create inventories to deal with melody, sound qualities, naturalistic and modified sounds, arrangements and rhythms. Throughout I give examples from popular music and film. In later modules we apply this specifically to film and to the way characters are represented through sound.

Each lecture talks through a number of tools for analysing sound and music giving examples. At the end of each will be some suggested activities. One of these will direct students to analyse some examples using the tools. The second of these will make suggestion as to how students might create their own sounds. Many computers now come with basic sound editing software or it can be downloaded free from the Internet. I teach a longer version of this module at year 3 undergraduate level where assessment takes the form of students building a soundscape using all of the tools. They have to show evidence of understanding of all the concepts and tools in order to communicate meaningfully and write a theoretical piece which explains their semiotic choices.


The key reading for this course is my book: Machin, D. (2010) Analysing Popular Music: image, sound, text, London, Sage. All of the lectures themes are developed in much more detail in each of the chapters.

Other Key readings are:

Cooke, D. (1959) Language of Music, Clarendon paperbacks

Van Leeuwen, T. (1999) Speech, Music, Sound, London, Macmillan.

Tagg, P. (1982) Nature as a Musical Mood Category, Nordens working paper series.

Cook, N Music A very short introduction Oxford UP1998

Cook, N (1990) Music, Imagination and Culture, Clarendon Press, Oxford

Tagg, P. (1989) Open Letter About ‘Black Music’, ‘Afro American Music’ and ‘European Music’ in Popular Music 8/3 285-289

Tagg, P. (2000) High and Low, Cool and Uncool: Aesthetic and historical falsifications about music in Europe, Keynote speech, IASPM (Bulgaria), 24 June

You will find both lectures notes and lecture summary handouts for each of the lectures. Further reading material will be found at the end of each.

Other References

Note: some references are given on individual lectures

Attali, J. (1985) Noise – The Political Economy of Music, Manchester University Press

Brown, R.S. (1994) Overtones and Undertones – Reading Film Music, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, esp. chapters 3 and 6, and the interviews with film composers (pp 269- 343)

Chanan, M. (1995) Repeated Takes – A Short History of Recording and its Effects on Music, London, Verso

Chernoff, J.M. (1979) African Rhythm and African Sensibility – Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms, Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Chion, M. (1994) Audio-Vision – Sound on Screen, New York, Columbia University Press

Cook, N. (1988) Music A very short introduction Oxford UP

Cook, N (1990) Music, Imagination and Culture, Clarendon Press, Oxford

Cooke, D. (1959) Language of Music, Clarendon paperbacks

Frith, S. (1984) ‘Mood Music’, Screen 25(3): 78-89

Frith, S. (1978). The Sociology of Rock.

Frith, S. (1996). Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music.

Gorbman, C. (1987) Unheard melodies – Narrative Film Music, London, BFI

Lomax, A. (1968) Folk Song Style and Culture, New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Books, pp. 150-186

Manvell, R. and Huntley, J. 1975) The Technique of Film Music, London, Focal Press, chapter 3

Orrey, L. (1975) Programme Music – A brief survey from the sixteenth century to the present day, London, Davis-Poynter

Schafer, R.M. (1977) The Tuning of the World, Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, esp pp 3-52; 153-9

Shepherd, J.(1977) Whose Music – A Sociology of Musical Languages, New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Books, pp. 69-125

Tagg, P. ‘Music in Mass Media Studies: Reading Sounds, for Example’, in Popular Music Research,

Göteborg, Nordicom-Sweden, no 1-2

Tagg, P. (1990) Reading Sounds: An essay on sounds, music, knowledge, rock and society, in Records Quarterly3/2pp4-11

Tagg, P. and Collins, E.K. (2001) The Sonic Aesthetics of the Industrial: Reconstructing yesterday’s Soundscape Paper for Soundscape Studies conference, Dartington College,

Tagg, P. (1994) From Refrain to Rave: The decline of the figure and the rise of the ground, Popular Music 13/2, pp209-222

Tannen, D. (1992) You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, London, Virago, pp. 188-216 Speech, Music, Sound, ch 7

Tagg, P. (1984) ‘Understanding Musical Time Sense’ in Tvarspel – Festskrift for Jan Ling (50 år), Göteborg,

Skriften fran Musikvetenskapliga Institutionen

Tagg, P. (1994) From Refrain to Rave: The decline of the figure and the rise of the ground, Popular Music 13/2, pp209-222

McClary, S. (1991) Feminine Endings – Music, Gender and Sexuality, Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press, ch 1 and 3

Wall, T. (2003) Studying popular music culture, London, Hodder

Tagg, P. (1989) Open Letter About ‘Black Music’, ‘Afro American Music’ and ‘European Music’ in Popular Music 8/3 285-289

Tagg, P. (2000) High and Low, Cool and Uncool: Aesthetic and historical falsifications about music in Europe, Keynote speech, IASPM (Bulgaria), 24 June

Weis, E. and Belton, W. (1985) Film Sound: Theory and Practice, New York, Columbia University Press


  1. Lecture 1 Discourses of music and sound (PDF)In this first lecture we begin to look at the way that the meanings we hear in sound and music are so much in the sounds themselves but put there by us. As part of this first step we look at some of the common sense ways that we have for understanding what music and […]
  2. Lecture 2 A social semiotic approach to music and sound (PDF)In this lecture we look at the approach that underlie this lecture series: Social Semiotics and how this helps us to think of sound and music as an available repertoire of semiotic choices that can be drawn upon by musicians to create meaning.
  3. Lecture 3 The meaning of pitch and melody (PDF)In this lecture we begin our study of the semiotics of sound which will comprise your tool kit for producing your own compositions. Pitch has much meaning potential, both in terms of levels of pitch and pitch ranges. In this session we explore pitch and also begin to look at the meanings of different notes […]
  4. Lecture 4 Sound qualities (PDF)Certain sounds and sound qualities can have meaning for us both by provenance and due to physical associations. In terms of provenance we might have the sound of certain music instruments such as the flute or bagpipes. In terms of association we have raspy versus smooth sounds, tense versus relaxed sounds and a range of […]
  5. Lecture 5: Rhythm (PDF)Rhythm is something we tend to take for granted in music and tend to think much less about the way we can characterise the way that sounds are organised together and in relation to each other to create a sense of movement, hesitation and stasis. We will look at a number of places where this […]
  6. Lecture 6: modalities in sound (PDF)If we listen to any film soundtrack we find that some sounds appears naturalistic, in other words they sounds as they would had we heard them produced naturally. Other sounds have been modified in one or several ways. They may have been changed in terms of volume, pitch, duration, resonance etc. A footstep may be […]
  7. Lecture 7 Soundscapes and arrangements (PDF)In this lecture we discuss the communicative potential of the different ways in which voices, instruments and other sounds can interact in a piece of music or other sound event. Do people speak or sing (or instruments play) in turn or at the same time? If they speak, play or sing at the same time, […]
  8. Lecture 8 Music and sound in movies (PDF)In this lecture we look at the use of music in movies to communicate action, coherence and to represent character. We draw on earlier lectures to look at the way different kinds of pitch ranges and melodic direction and different sound qualities can be used to represent different kinds of action and character.  

David Machin | Biography

David Machin is currently Senior Lecturer in the School of Journalism Media and Cultural Studies. He has published 8 books which include Introduction to Multimodal Analysis (2007), Global Media Discourse (2007), Analysing Popular Music (2010) and Language and Crime and Deviance (2012). He has published over 50 journal papers and book chapters and is editor of the international peer reviewed journal Social Semiotics. His research interests are in communication through kinds of semiotic resources, including language, images, sounds and material objects. He also has an interest in the way that particular institutions manage and process semiotic resources, particularly in the context of news and magazine production. You can download his CV here.