Towards a cultural semiotics of sound

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I would like to talk here about how the approach of cultural semiotics is useful for an analysis of non-verbal/functional sounds. At least three questions seem important in this context: How do sounds become part of processes of meaning formation? How are specific sounds rendered meaningful? And what are the cultural practices through which sounds are produced, perceived and disseminated?

What I find particularly constructive with regard to cultural semiotics is the way in which it attempts to understand the specific semiotic processes (semiosis) through which culture is defined and transformed. When the questions posed above are related to sound, this requires to differentiate a sonic sign system from other sign systems (e.g. a linguistic sign system), and to investigate how sounds actually become meaningful in constituting culture. Related questions would be how sound delineates and transforms culture and how different sonic cultures relate to each other. If it is (preliminarily) agreed that sound can be grasped as a sign system, it is useful to further differentiate the concept of sound as part of a cultural sign system in relating it to the terms that Posner proposes in his article “Kultursemiotik” – namely, processes, codes and media.

Posner states that “each process within which something functions as a sign can be called a semiotic process (semiosis)” (Posner 40, my translation), starting from the premise that each semiotic process consists of a sign, a performer (“Interpret”) and a message. Therefore, if the sign is a sound, the performer is the one who perceives the sound and constructs a message around it. The performer can also be someone who creates the sound in order to convey a message. The interpretation of a sound’s message depends on the knowledge of a code. Posner states that a common language is such a code, and I think it is highly interesting to investigate the codes of listening and  non-verbal sonic articulation that people know and draw on in a particular semiotic process.

Posner differentiates between natural, conventional and artificial codes in reference to Keller/Lüdtke (ibid. 42). He states that the passing on of conventional codes results in the creation of tradition and states that, according to humanities, a group of people who agree on the same tradition constitute a culture (ibid. 42). I would like to add the idea stemming from Hobsbawm (1) that what is conceived of as traditional in modern western thought is “invented,” i.e. constructed to serve particular ideological objectives. Therefore, from my point of view it is necessary to investigate the specific cultural practices in which sounds are rendered significant (taking into account underlying power structures), and thus explore the discontinuities of different interacting semiotic processes.

A relevant way to study the uses of conventional codes and the practices of sonic interaction which take place in semiotic processes is to investigate the different media through which sound is mediated. Posner mentions different media which are relevant in semiotic processes (cf Posner 43) which I will adopt here and modify, where necessary, with regard to the sound of a ring tone (while his example is the utterance of the word “fire”): Sensual modality (e.g. the ear), matter (i.e. air), device (e.g. telephone), social institution, or, I would like to add, social space (e.g. here: underground station), function (e.g. here: mediation of an incoming call), and I would like to add social function (e.g. personalised ring tone), and code (e.g. here: knowledge of sound signals). This will of course have to be further differentiated and elaborated.

Looking at cultures as sonic sign systems, it is necessary to look at particular practices of sound production, perception and dissemination. This becomes particularly interesting and complex when studying processes of cultural transformation such as globalisation, migration, and cultural hybridisation which constantly challenge conceptions of culture. Rather than thinking about cultures as “containers” which are equipped with a clearly delineable set of (sonic) characteristics (Hannerz 1996), I would like to inquire whether we can actually speak of “sonic cultures” at all, and if so, how we can think about semiotic processes of sound as transcultural (cf Müller-Schulzke 2010).



Hannerz, Ulf. Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places. London: Routledge. 1996.
Hobsbawm, Eric. “Introduction: Inventing Traditions.” The Invention of Tradition. Ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992 (originally published 1983). 1-14.
Müller-Schulzke, Carla. “Eindringliches Hören: Sound-Praktiken urbaner transkultureller Clubmusik.” Nachwuchsforschung in den Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften. Ed. Helmut Brentel and Tilla Siegel. Frankfurt am Main: Frankfurt Graduate School for the Humanities and Social Sciences. 2010. 37-42.
Posner, Roland. “Kultursemiotik.” Konzepte der Kulturwissenschaften: Theoretische Grundlagen – Ansätze – Perspektiven. Ed. Ansgar Nünning and Vera Nünning. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2008. 39-72.