DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 1
Association of Meaning in Program Music: On Denotation, Inherence, and Onomatopoeia
Mihailo Antović, Dušan Stamenković, Vladimir Figar
University of Niš, Serbia
in press: Music Perception, http://mp.ucpress.edu/
Faculty of Philosophy,
Center for Cognitive Sciences,
University of Niš,
Ćirila i Metodija 2, 18000 Niš, Serbia
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 2
We tested three theses on the construction of extramusical meaning in program music: (1)
that some excerpts contain an “inherent” musical structure which facilitates the interpretation
aligned with the composer’s intentions; (2) that “onomatopoeia” , musical imitation of natural
sounds, is a frequent subclass of this “inherence”; and (3) that providing the title of the piece
further facilitates the “proper” interpretation of intended meaning. Two hundred and one
students were given six musical stimuli (three based on “inherent” and three on “arbitrary”
association) and asked to write a one-sentence description of extramusical meaning
associated with the examples. In the first trial, all participants provided descriptions without a
suggestion. In the second, they were randomly assigned to three groups, receiving
suggestions that were neutral, aligned with the composer’s program, or deliberately worded
to contradict this program. Three raters then coded the responses on the basis of conformity
with the composer’s intentions and presence of onomatopoeia. The result was (a) no
difference in the numbers of conformant descriptions to “inherent” as opposed to “arbitrary”
examples; (b) a negligible number of onomatopoeic descriptions; (c) a strong influence of
“false”, but not “true” suggestions. We discuss some implications for further studies of
Keywords: extramusical meaning, inherent and arbitrary association, onomatopoeia,
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 3
Association of Meaning in Program Music: On Denotation, Inherence, and Onomatopoeia
Musical meaning is a much discussed concept, which scholars approach from
numerous angles. While some authors reject the idea that music can have semantic content
(Kivy, 2002), supporters too take a variety of positions, looking for the meaning of music in
the form alone (Bernstein, 1976), in musical affect (Jackendoff & Lerdahl, 2006), in
emotions triggered by the music (Juslin & Laukka, 2003), in image schemas (Brower, 2000)
or conceptual metaphors underlying music perception and analysis (Zbikowski, 2002), in
conceptual blends of music and the extramusical (Brandt, 2008), or in broader semiotic
connections between music and the world of experience (Hatten, 2004; Agawu, 2008).
Introducing some system behind such diversified approaches, Koelsch (2013, §10)
proposes a useful tri-partite classification into “intramusical”, “musicogenic”, and
“extramusical” meaning. The first class pertains to formal, intrinsic structural relations
among musical elements, the second to physical, emotional or personal effects elicited by the
music, and the third to “conceptual” meaning, where a musical sign relates to a referent from
the world of experience.
The present study deals with extramusical meaning. It empirically tests three interrelated
ideas on the interpretation of composer intentions in program music: (1) that some program
pieces contain an inherent musical structure which facilitates “proper” extramusical
interpretation; (2) that there is a subclass of such inherent structure in which this
interpretation is based on the recognition that the music physically imitates a natural sound;
and (3) that the provision of a short verbal clue explicitly introducing the composer’s
program helps the participants to reach, and ultimately verbally report, this proper
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 4
Our three research ideas have been inspired by various authors’ attempts to provide a
finer-grain classification of extramusical semantic phenomena. For instance, Koelsch (2013)
follows Karbusicky (1986) and ultimately Peirce (1931/1958) in proposing that extramusical
meaning can be “iconic”, with the musical information resembling the sounds or qualities of
objects, “indexical”, emerging from the inner states of the individual, and “symbolic”,
coming from arbitrary extramusical associations. Davies (1994, pp. 29-36) defines five
classes of extramusical meaning, from natural and unintended to arbitrary and symbolic,
while Cross (2011) offers an essentially binary distinction, based on “either (culturally-
shaped) association, or a fit between the acoustical characteristics of a musical fragment and
its inferable communicative function” (p. 118).
The first question of the present study derives from this last distinction, revived recently
in Pérez-Sobrino’s (2014) classification into two categories of semantic inference in program
music: “inherent” and “ad hoc” subsidiarity, which are subclasses of what she calls
“dependency enrichment”. It is important to stress that the present work is not investigating
the complex classifications of metonymic processes in music internal to Pérez-Sobrino’s
theoretical model. Rather, we are using the broad distinction into “inherent” and “ad hoc”
exemplified by six musical excerpts from her article as inspiration for our own research
question: whether composer-intended extramusical meaning is more transparent to
participants in the “inherent” class. As our study deals with associative processes, we label
the first group inherent association (resembling HaCohen and Wagner’s  “inherent”
and Koelsch’s “iconic”) and the second arbitrary association (close to Koelsch’s “symbolic”
meaning, Davies’ “intentional, arbitrary stipulation of stand-alone meaning”, or Cross’s
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 5
With regard to the second question, we search the participants’ descriptions for lexical
items invoking the imitation of natural sounds. We take this to be indicative of the
extramusical meaning construction process which, following numerous authors
comprehensively listed in Castelões (2009), we label musical “onomatopoeia”. The concept
corresponds to the first subclass of Koelsch’s “iconic meaning” (musical information
resembling the sounds of objects) and is also closely related to Pérez-Sobrino’s “echoing” –
“an operation whereby music directly imitates a sound from the physical world”, as in the
violin trills in Vivaldi’s Spring which echo the warble of birds (2014, p. 137).
Our third question revisits HaCohen and Wagner (1997), who applied Osgood’s semantic
differential and an original method labeled the “semantic integral” onto participants’
interpretation of Wagner’s leitmotifs. Their participants first rated predefined connotations on
Likert scales, and then invented “denotative” titles for the leitmotifs. Overall, the results
confirmed both that the leitmotifs bore “inherent meaning” and that the relationship between
their connotative and denotative aspects was “complementary” (p. 145). Thus we define
musical descriptions with no prior contextual clue as based on musical connotations, and
descriptions following the explicit verbal prompt as derived from musical denotations.
We put forward the following hypotheses:
1. [Inherence]: The classification into “inherent” and “arbitrary association” fails – with
or without explicit verbal prompts, participants do not report the intended extramusical
meaning in the former group significantly more often than in the latter.
2. [Onomatopoeia]: Descriptions of music with lexical items referring to the imitation of
natural sounds are rare, even in excerpts claimed to explicitly utilize imitation (Vivaldi).
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 6
3. [Denotation]: The subsequent provision of context, in the form of the title of the piece
and one additional sentence aligned with the composer’s program, changes the extramusical
interpretation, biasing the description toward the composer’s intention.
There were 201 participants, nonmusicians, students of the English Department,
University of Niš (M = 21.37 years, SD = 1.27, 69.15% women).
We used six musical excerpts investigated in Pérez-Sobrino (2014). Three were based
on “inherent association”: violin trills in Vivaldi’s Spring imitating the chirp of birds;
Schubert’s Gretchen by the Spinning Wheel in which “circular” patterns in the piano
resemble the image of a wheel that revolves; and Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King in
which the staccato maps onto the walking of the main character, Peer Gynt. The remaining
three were based on “arbitrary association”: Papageno’s piccolo motive in The Magic Flute,
Ravel’s use of the pentatonic scale to introduce an oriental mood in Laideronette, Empress of
the Pagodas, and Wagner’s sword motif from The Ring of the Nibelung. The “arbitrary”
examples were selected based on the global musical similarity with the “inherent” excerpts
(all classical pieces, one in each group is played by the piano, a medium-sized and a full-
blown orchestra, there is a person singing in German in one piece in each group). All six
stimuli contained the particular parts of scores indicated by Pérez-Sobrino and were 28
seconds in length.1
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 7
While not identical, our methodology was inspired by HaCohen and Wagner’s (1997)
“semantic integral” method. These authors used participants’ freely invented titles to
assemble “modular” names of Wagner’s pieces, in an effort to predict the range of possible
extramusical meanings that listeners from the same cultural circumstances could ascribe to
the leitmotifs. Our study took a different turn: we looked for free-form associations to
programmatic musical motives, played either alone or after pre-devised titles, where the
“appropriateness” of these titles to the composer’s intention was controlled for. Rather than
compiling more generic extramusical meanings, we assessed the conformance of the
descriptions to the composer’s alleged intentions, ensuring the objectivity of assessment
through the calculation of inter-rater agreement. Our protocols find support in Osgood’s
representational mediation theory, where a meaning of the (musical) sign is established
through association with its (nonmusical) significate, and the linguistic description
(behavioral “response”) is a consequence of mediated, internal self-stimulation (cf. Berlyne,
1971, esp. p. 111). In Osgood’s own words “Whenever some stimulus other than the
significate [e.g. the violin trill] is contiguous with the significate [e.g. the chirp of birds], it
will acquire an increment of association with some portion of the total behavior elicited by
the significate as a representational mediation process” (Osgood, Succi, & Tannenbaum,
1957, p. 6).
We thus asked the participants to listen to six musical examples and write a single-
sentence report on what the pieces reminded them of. The experiment took place in identical
small classrooms, with 18 to 25 participants per session. The stimuli were played on a laptop
computer with a pair of Genius 2.1 CH surround speakers. Their order was counterbalanced
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 8
The participants heard every stimulus three times: after the introductory trial, they
were asked to write down the name of the composer/piece. Those who did this correctly were
excluded from calculations for the particular stimulus (54 situations, or 4.48%). Naturally,
answers to the remaining stimuli by the same person were retained, in practice resulting in a
slight variation to total numbers of answers per stimulus. Upon the second listening, the
participants were required to write down, in one sentence of their native language what, from
the world of experience, the segment reminded them of and why. In the final trial, they were
asked to repeat the task, however after reading a short text, which contained two sentences.
Here the participants were randomly assigned to three groups: control was given neutral
instructions, describing only the formal musical parameters, such as the number of bars and
size of the orchestra; experimental group 1 was given “proper” instructions, containing the
title of the piece and one more sentence in line with the composer’s program; experimental
group 2 was given “wrong” instructions, where we invented an “antonymic” title of the piece
followed by one sentence deliberately “opposite” of the composer’s program (see Footnote
Respondents’ free-form descriptions were coded into quantifiable variables. Relating
to Hypothesis 1, the variable “conformance” had two values: “salient” and “nonsalient”,
where “salient” responses were in line with the composer’s apparent intentions, in two levels
of polysemy: (1) Vivaldi – anything related to birdsong or birds (cf. Pérez-Sobrino, 2014, p.
133); (2) Schubert: a wheel or an object rotating around an axis (p. 138); (3) Grieg: human or
any animate footsteps (p. 143); Mozart: hunter of birds or any animal that can be hunted (p.
142); Ravel: any invocation of Asia or the Orient (p. 144); Wagner: any association to a
sword or fight (p. 147).
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 9
The second variable (“onomatopoeia”) related to Hypothesis 2, and was coded as
“onomatopoeic” (pure sound, e.g., buzz, whir, screech, twitter), and “nononomatopoeic”. In
relation to the common thesis of music cognition theorists affiliated with cognitive linguistics
that musical meaning is based on “image schemas” (e.g., Saslaw, 1996; Zbikowski, 1998;
Cox, 1999), we additionally divided the “nononomatopoeic” category of descriptions into
“image-schematic” (images, spatial movement, interaction of forces, e.g., a battle, a person
walking, a waterfall), and “non image-schematic” (technical terms, e.g., “low tones”,
emotional qualities, e.g. “sad”, descriptions of contexts where similar music was heard rather
than of the music itself, e.g. “It’s like The Lord of the Rings”).
With regard to Hypothesis 3, we compared the number of “salient” responses before
and after the suggestion, in all three groups. We also tested if the participants anyhow
changed their opinion after the suggestion, based on the presence of new concepts in the latter
description. Finally, we checked if any change in experimental group 2 was in line with the
false suggestion, containing at least one new concept from the false suggestion.
The coding was conducted independently by two raters. Cohen’s Kappa (κ) for all
relevant variables taken together was .77 (indicating substantial agreement, Landis & Koch,
1977). The value for “conformance” alone (“salient”/”nonsalient”) was .86 (almost perfect
agreement). Agreement on the number of onomatopoeias was total (1.0). Yet, when we broke
down the “nononomatopoeic” category in two segments (“image-schematic” and “non image-
schematic”), κ reduced to .66 (still in the range of substantial agreement). In other words,
there was a bit of controversy on whether some responses were image-schematic, but no
dissent on onomatopoeias.
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 10
Finally, the two coders and the third author met to decide on instances of
disagreement. The final decision was almost always unanimous, with only six cases requiring
a majority vote, after which the final database was compiled.
The distributions of “salient” and “nonsalient” responses to pieces based on
“inherent” and “arbitrary” association did not significantly differ after the first listening, i.e.
in the entire sample without a suggestion: ϰ2(1) = 0.88, p = .35, V = .03 (Table 1):
Moreover, there were no differences in these distributions after “neutral” and “false”
suggestions in control and experimental group 2 – control: ϰ2(1) = 0.47, p = .49, V = .04;
exp 2: ϰ2(1) = 0, p = 1, V = .01. After “proper” prompts in experimental group 1 there were
significantly more “salient” responses to arbitrary and not inherent stimuli: ϰ2(1) = 7.38, p <
.01, V = .15 (Figure 1):
To test if there was still a gradation in the number of salient descriptions from the
“arbitrary” toward the “inherent” category, we allocated the descriptions into three groups by
the number of salient answers (based on the analysis of confidence intervals, p < .05, Figure
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 11
We did not get a scale in which “inherent” pieces slowly give way to “arbitrary” ones
in terms of the “degree of inherence”. Rather, the distribution into three categories was
relatively even, making Wagner as “highly inherent” as Grieg, Mozart and Ravel as “medium
inherent” as Vivaldi, and Schubert alone “least inherent”.
In terms of the relative transparency of intended extramusical meaning in the three
examples from the “inherent association” group, Grieg was interpreted correctly without
prompts most often, followed by Vivaldi, and then by Schubert (p < .05, Figure 2).
As for Hypothesis 2, we had 54 onomatopoeic and 1,096 nononomatopoeic responses,
of which 764 could be classified as image-schematic and 364 as non image-schematic. In
other words, there were about twenty times fewer onomatopoeic than nononomatopoeic
Per response, the number of onomatopoeias was negligible. The most cases were
noted in Ravel (12 instances, or 6.06%) and Vivaldi (22 descriptions, or 11.89%). With
Ravel, seven onomatopoeic responses invoked the sound of raindrops or flowing water
(perhaps interesting as the princess in Ravel’s program is taking a bath). In Vivaldi, of 22
onomatopoeic answers, only 11 (5.95%) invoked birdsong (chirp, twitter), while the rest had
nothing to do with birds, their song or even spring.
With regard to Hypothesis 3, there were no significant differences in the number of
“salient” responses before and after the suggestion in control and experimental group 1 –
control: ϰ2(1) = 0.56, p = .45, V = .03; exp 1: ϰ2(1) = 0.01, p = .92, V = .01, but there was a
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 12
statistically significant decrease in this number after the “false” suggestion in experimental
group 2: ϰ2(1) = 15.85, p < .01, V = .15 (Figure 3):
The number of changed descriptions increased after suggestions in experimental
group 1 as compared with control, ϰ2(1) = 31.02, p < .01, V = .20, and rose further in
experimental group 2, as compared with both control and experimental group 1 – in this last
case, ϰ2(1) = 26.14, p < .01, V = .19. Of the total 265 changes in experimental group two,
203 were related to the content of the suggestion (76.60%).
HaCohen and Wagner’s study demonstrated “that the leitmotifs bear inherent
meaning” and “substantiated the existence of complementary relations between the
connotative and denotative aspects of the leitmotifs, [...] disclosing essential characteristics of
the semantic structure of music in general” (p. 154). It appears that our experiment has
provided a result opposite to theirs, as the relations between connotations and denotations in
our examples were hardly complementary. First, providing “proper” titles did not increase the
number of responses aligned with the composer’s program (denotation did not enhance
connotation). Second, titles deliberately contradicting the composer’s intention sparked a
significant decrease in the number of “salient” responses (thus the “wrong” denotation
managed to “override” the apparent connotation). One caveat is necessary here, however.
HaCohen and Wagner explicitly focused on Wagner’s leitmotifs. Since in our study, too, the
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 13
sole example by Wagner fared quite high on the “inherence” scale, we believe a composer-
specific follow-up is warranted.
The present work was also inspired by Pérez-Sobrino’s (2014) broad classification
into “inherent” and “ad hoc” subsidiarity. While we reiterate that our methodology has not
tested the specific predictions on musical metonymy from this model, our results seem to put
to question some of its underlying assumptions about the bases of musical meaning. For
instance, Pérez-Sobrino claims that the identification of the chirp of birds in the Vivaldi
segment should be easy and manifest, exemplifying “the most direct form of perceived
similarity” between the music and the extramusical program (p. 137). Likewise, she expects
that familiarity with the title, at least in Vivaldi and Grieg, will facilitate the listeners’
understanding of the composer’s intended meanings (p. 133 and 143). Neither of these
assumptions has been corroborated in the present work.
We therefore propose that prior to engaging in the very important theoretical debates
about the nature of the cognitive process through which participants understand composers’
programmatic intentions (e.g., associations, conceptual blending, metonymy...), we should
first empirically “establish the phenomenon” (Merton, 1987): under what conditions are these
intentions actually grasped. In the present study “inherent” structure and explicit two-
sentence prompts have not motivated an increased number of “correct” interpretations. This
of course does not deny the concept of meaning generation in program music, but only
vouches for further work on what conditions need to be met for “proper”, composer-intended
extramusical interpretations to be induced. Further studies should look into the minimum
“degree of suggestion” needed to entrench the association between the music and the
extramusical (a longer text, repeated exposure to the text, visual animations rather than verbal
suggestions…). Likewise, once the “proper” extramusical interpretation has been entrenched,
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 14
one could wonder how it may motivate and/or constrain subsequent extramusical meanings
associated with the musical theme. This is especially relevant as we often witness in the
media that well-known music gets (ab)used in originally unintended contexts.
Methodologically, the present work has used a technique based on free-form associations,
supported by Osgood’s notion of representational mediation. Further studies could resort to
more established experimental methods, perhaps the full semantic differential protocols. We
still hope that our results, especially the apparent openness of listeners to interpretations that
counter the intentions of the composer, provide some contribution to the fledgling discipline
of musical semantics.
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 15
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Mihailo Antović, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of English, Faculty of
Philosophy, and also researcher and head of the Center for Cognitive Sciences at the
University of Niš, Serbia. He teaches cognitive linguistics, psycholinguistics and conducts
research on music and language cognition. He has presented papers at numerous conferences
in Europe and the USA, and published his work in journals such as Metaphor and Symbol
and Musicae Scientiae. He was a Fulbright visiting scholar at Case Western Reserve
University and a research scholar at the University of Freiburg.
Dušan Stamenković, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of English, Faculty of
Philosophy, University of Niš, where he teaches contemporary English and gives tutorials in
cognitive semantics and semiotics. He has presented his papers in the United Kingdom,
Ireland, Argentina, Romania, Sweden, Spain, Bosnia and Hezegovina, and Serbia, whereas he
has published his work in a number of journals, including Games and Culture, Studia
Neophilologica and Perspectives: Studies in Translatology. His interests include cognitive
linguistics, semiotics, game studies, visual language, and multimodality. He is the secretary
of the Center for Cognitive Sciences (University of Niš), and a member of RaAM, SCLA,
SASE, and ESSE.
Vladimir Figar (MA) is a teaching assistant in the Department of English, Faculty of
Philosophy, University of Niš, where he gives tutorials in contemporary English and
cognitive linguistics. He has presented papers at conferences in Poland, Sweden, and Serbia.
His area of interest includes conceptual metaphor, conceptual blending, and political
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 18
The present research was supported by the Serbian Ministry of Education, Science and
Technological Development (grant no. 179013).
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 19
1. The complete stimuli and verbal suggestions are available online at:
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Distribution of salient and nonsalient responses – inherent vs. arbitrary association (in the
entire sample, without a suggestion)
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 21
Figure 1. Distribution of “salient” and “nonsalient” responses per participant group after
the suggestion (second trial).
Figure 2. Ordering of the percentages of “salient” responses by stimulus with confidence
intervals for each stimulus. Overlaps in 95% confidence intervals are shown in shaded areas.
Figure 3. Numbers of “salient” responses before and after the suggestion, per participant
DENOTATION, INHERENCE, ONOMATOPOEIA 22
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