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Cognitive Semiotics

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From expectation to concepts: Toward multilevel grounding in musical semantics

Mihailo Antović
Published Online: 2016-11-08 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cogsem-2016-0005


This paper initiates a theory of musical semantics based on the notions of cross-domain mapping from cognitive linguistics and ground from the philosophy of language. The central claim is that listeners construct musical meaning on the basis of neither free associations nor fixed clues inherent to the musical structure. Rather, the process is grounded in a hierarchical system of six contextual constraints. On level one, the first glimpse of meaning emerges from direct physiological reactions, as when a segment of music is described as “tense.” On level two, image-schematic structure begins to be constructed, e. g., a “hopping” staccato. Level three is connotational, ascribing emotional qualities to the music, while on level four, the meaning becomes conceptual, relating the music to rich imagery, e. g., “a medieval battle.” On level five, conceptual meaning interacts with an elaborated cultural context, motivating rich descriptions at the intersection of two or more conceptual domains, e. g., when the “battle” is replaced by “gods coming down from Olympus.” Level six hosts associations grounded in personal experience. To support the proposal, a representative set of verbal descriptions from a recent experimental study on musical meaning is analyzed, showing both the emergence of new conceptual content and the hierarchical nature of grounding. In doing so, the contribution attempts to formally capture the old paradox of musical semantics: that music is full of meaning, yet that this meaning is highly underspecified, manifested in a potential rather than definite form.

Keywords: music; meaning; cross-domain mapping; ground


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About the article

Mihailo Antović

Mihailo Antović, Ph.D., associate professor, teaches cognitive linguistics in the Department of English, Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Niš, Serbia. He has presented papers on music, language, meaning and cognition at more than 20 conferences in Austria, Greece, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He was a Fulbright visiting scholar at Case Western Reserve University and research scholar at the University of Freiburg. His articles have appeared in a number of journals, including Metaphor and Symbol, Language and History, Musicae Scientiae, Language and Communication, and Music Perception. In addition to several contributions to international edited volumes, he has also co-edited a volume on oral poetics and cognitive science for De Gruyter. He currently heads the Center for Cognitive Sciences, University of Niš.

Published Online: 2016-11-08

Published in Print: 2018-03-26

The present work was supported by the Serbian Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development (grant 179013).

Citation Information: Cognitive Semiotics, Volume 9, Issue 2, Pages 105–138, ISSN (Online) 2235-2066, ISSN (Print) 1662-1425, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cogsem-2016-0005.

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