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Referential iconicity in music and speech within and across sensory modalities

  • Veronica Giraldo Valencia
Publishing year: 2018
Language: English
Document type: Student publication for Master's degree (two years)


Musical meaning is multifaceted: both highly sensory and yet often abstract, able to cross cultural boundaries and yet embedded in specific traditions. For the most part it is not denotational (Monelle, 1991). Nevertheless, in “programmatic music”, musical themes are intended to refer to worldly objects and events on the basis of iconic (and indexical) grounds. Such non-arbitrariness of the sound-sign (Sonesson, 2013) appears to apply to speech as well, where research has established that the iconicity in question is subtle, but systematic enough
to be detectible by both adults and children (Ahlner and Zlatev, 2010; Imai and Kita, 2014). Very often, it operates across sensory modalities, so that for example a sound form like lulu is linked to round shapes, while titti is associated with sharp and hard ones.

This thesis investigates how referential iconicity in speech operates in relation to
music, taking into account different kinds of iconicity, unimodality and cross-modality and
finally cultural background. To address these aspects, an experiment in which 21 Swedish and
21 Chinese native speakers had to match musical fragments or spoken word-forms to
referents (represented by schematic pictures) was designed. It included two different
conditions. In one there were two sound-stimuli and two referents (more contrastive). In the
other, a single sound-stimulus was to be matched to one of four alternative referents (less

The results showed that there was no significant difference between the overall results
for music and linguistic tasks, indicating that the psychological, interpretive processes
involved are not limited to a single cognitive domain, or semiotic system. As expected, the
more contrastive condition was easier for both groups, showing that cultural background
played little role for making the appropriate cross-modal mapping when the choice was so
constrained. Finally, the fact that participants performed significantly better in morecontrastive tasks than less-contrastive, whilst performing above significant chance in both
conditions serves as a clear indicator that interpreting referential music in music and speech
sounds involves a combination of primary and secondary iconicity (Sonesson 1997), with a
considerable role for the latter.


  • Languages and Literatures
  • Keywords: Cognitive semiotics
  • iconicity
  • ideophones
  • multimodality
  • music
  • music cultures
  • semiotics
  • semiotics systems
  • signs
  • sound symbolism
  • primary and secondary iconicity
  • unimodality.


  • Jordan Zlatev (Docent)