Dissertation Index

Author: Newton, Alex

Title: Semiotics of Music, Semiotics of Sound, and Film: Toward a Theory of Acousticons

Institution: The University of Texas-Austin

Begun: August 2013

Completed: June 2015


Topic theory, the study of conventional musical figures, has emerged as a significant method of analysis for music scholars in the last thirty years. Much current research critically interprets and contextualizes topics from a variety of musical eras and styles, including film music. However, studying film presents music scholars with a new set of issues since the filmic medium not only includes visual signs in the form of the image track, but also another category of sonic signs in the form of sound design. In film sound tracks, musical signs and sonic signs frequently butt up against one another and even pass into one another’s domain.

My dissertation seeks to bridge the current gap between music figures and sound figures by arguing that musical figures are best considered as a special case of general sound figures that I call acousticons. Acousticons are conventionalized figures of music or sound (e.g. reverb, fidelity) and they exist on a continuum defined by the poles of purely musical codes on the one hand and purely sonic codes on the other. Chapter 1 presents a general model of the acousticon using Peirce’s modes of the sign. It interrogates iconic models presented in media studies and iconography as possible corollaries to the sound track. Chapter 2 and 3 present case studies of acousticons. Chapter 2 gives a case study of acousticons of the subjective interior in the form of the lowered submediant and subjective, point-of-audition sound. Chapter 3 considers how films deploy reverberation and low fidelity recordings acousticonically to bring about different types of nostalgia. Chapter 4 considers the potential for acousticons outside of the sound track medium. It looks at how acousticons might work in audio branding. Specifically, it looks at the construction of sonic logos, product sound, and the use of popular music in advertising and product design.

Keywords: semiotics, film, topic theory, sound, acousticon, audio branding, headphones


Introduction: Musical Topics, Sonic Signs, and How a Sound Track Works

Chapter 1: Toward a Theory of the Acousticon

Chapter 2: Acousticons of the Interior

Chapter 3: Sounds Like the Good Old Days -- Acousticons and Nostalgia

Chapter 4: The Acousticon, The Hyperreal and Audio Branding




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