Threshold concepts in the semiotics and sociology of music

Endrick Water taken Johnny Watt flickr

[Picture credit: Endrick Water taken by Johnny Watt source: Flickr.]

The point of this page is to set out just a few of the key threshold concepts in the sociology and anthropology of music with the aim of trying to better explain what and why we do. A threshold concept is that which could not be expected to be part of the vernacular or everyday sphere of knowledge and thus crucial to defining the specialist knowledge of a discipline and why it might be useful to study it. This is only a personal selection–there are many others of critical importance–please send some along if you’d like to add them here or get in touch to let me know (I’ll include your name clearly for each entry as author). I’ve also sneakily included some discourse analysis concepts which are really useful for the social semiotic analysis of music and language. Maybe this could develop into something useful as a joint project, maybe not–hopefully of use to others. Blank entries need work! Please write to me if you think there are others that could be included and perhaps it could become a useful resource…


Threshold concepts in the semiotics and sociology of music


Affect: Another complex term that has become very fashionable in musicology since the 1990s. At its heart it deals with the emotional impact of people making music.

Anaphora: Repeating the same word or words at the beginning of a clause or phrase for special performative effect. E.g. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. (Charles Dickens).

Authenticity: A complex but essential term in music studies that at its core is about the social processes dealing with the truth and sincerity of people making music.


Constitutive: having the power to establish something. e.g. Early years musical listening has been shown to be consitutive of musical talent in later life.

Causal: Something that directly causes something else. e.g. There is a causal relationship between smoking and cancer.

Code-switching: Moving between two syntactic systems (i.e. grammars or musical modes), in music this might involve mixing elements of folk music within a larger performance of jazz. This could of course happen at another level, e.g. code switching between two modes Double tonic mode switching to anhemitonic authentic modal performance within the same performance piece. Importantly this is a switch in the syntactic structure (not just the surface structure). There has been work in Ethnomusicology on deep and surface structures (e.g. Blacking et al) and in musicology (e.g. starts with people like Leonard Bernstein and goes on into musical semiotics).

Competitive individualism: This is an effect whereby people use certain social performances to differentiate themselves individually by constructing a particular sense of self from cultural knowledge and participation. For example, many middle class people now widely use musical omnivorousness to construct themselves as cosmopolitan, well-informed contemporary citizens, juxtaposing knowledge of diverse genres and performers of music to publicly advance a version of themselves as an intelligent consumer in a globalised world.  See Honneth, A. 2004. ‘Organized Self-Realization: Some Paradoxes of Individualization’, European Journal of Social Theory, 7.4: 463–78 <; AND various by David Hesmondalgh, including Hesmondhalgh, David. 2008. ‘Towards a Critical Understanding of Music, Emotion and Self‐identity’, Consumption Markets & Culture, 11.4: 329–43 <;.

Cultural Capital: Proposed by Pierre Bourdieu, this refers to the means or perception of an individual’s cultural status and competence in relation to their group. You might think of it as a judgement by others of how ‘cool’ or ‘wicked’ a person is perceived to be within their peer group, based upon an assessment of their possessions, knowledge or achievements in the cultural realm. Particularly useful for thinking about extending the notion of class to incorporate someone’s cultural status as well as their financial or professional status. The antecedents and etymology of the term ‘capital’ itself are semantically very complex, an excellent starting point is Raymond Williams introduction to the term available here.

Cultural Omnivore: The trend for middle and upper class consumers to try more and more diverse styles of music and for this to be treated socially as a marker of high social and cultural status. Many new aficionados of ‘world music’ for instance are cultural omnivores; using their aesthetic plurality as a marker of cultural capital.

Creativity: An amorphous and slippery term often used to describe the process by which new meanings are constructed between an individual and their community or field of practice. Heidegger positions it as something ‘novel’ or new that stands in opposition to the traditional, or known. This is problematic for culture because many deeply creative works of art are deeply traditional in their structures (e.g. popular song, folk music, haiku etc.). The term inherently implies a body of shared knowledge juxtaposed with the new and has often applied to individuals and is now implicated in the cultural policy literature as the ‘creative industries’ the term has become semantically bogged down and commodified but in essence still refers in culture to an opening up of something new and usually positively attractive.


Ethnicity: Often confused with ‘race’, ethnicity is the learned socio-cultural identity, of a large social group. Usually associated with national identities (e.g. ‘Scottish’), but also with the cultural identity of a community lifestyle (e.g. ‘traveller’) or a large multi-national ethnicity (e.g. ‘Arab’). Ethnicity is learned and is a social category agreed through consensus, whereas ‘race’ is biologically inherited, one can have both multiply-layered racial and ethnic identities (e.g. ‘Black British’).

Framing devices: Where an element or thing is used to bookend a story, song or piece of music, setting up particular associations

Gender: The socially-constructed sex roles of masculine and feminine. Not to be confused with biological sex (male and female) because gender implies a socially constructed sense of femininity and masculinity which can be found in different ways in both men and women.

Genre: ‘…a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes. These purposes are recognized by the expert members of the parent discourse community, and thereby constitute the rationale for the genre. This rationale shapes the schematic structure of the discourse and influences and constrains choice of content and style’ (Swales 1990, 58).

Habitus: Another one from Bourdieu that he suggests is a set of embodied habits that can be used to express an individual’s natural cultural behaviour. Evidenced in aspects of daily life such as the way people walk, talk, communicate etc. it is crucial to Bourdieu’s concepts of taste as a marker of class and group status and belonging.  Bourdieu describes it as a concept, ‘…structuring structure, which organises practices and the perception of practices’ (from Distinction, p. 170) and more recently refined as ‘…a set of bodily and cognitive dispositions which social actors develop via early life experiences and through which they make sense of the social fields‘ (from Varriale, Simone. 2015. ‘Beyond Distinction: Theorising Cultural Evaluation as a Social Encounter’, Cultural Sociology: 1749975515596447 <; where she extends this notion and its relational properties).

This concept has also been extended to musical habitus recently by Mark Rimmer (Rimmer, Mark. 2012. ‘Beyond Omnivores and Univores: The Promise of a Concept of Musical Habitus’, Cultural Sociology, 6: 299–318 <;).

Hegemony: Domination by the powerful over other groups, that appears to be the natural condition. I.e. hegemony is usually exposed in CDA as the socio-political or cultural context that unconsciously favours the dominant group (after Gramsci b. 1891-1937, [1971]). ‘Common sense, suggests Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, is ‘…the way a subordinate class lives its subordination’ (cited in Alvarado & Boyd-Barrett 1992: 51).

Hyperinstrumentalism: The justification and understanding of culture solely in terms of its non-cultural outcomes (see for discussion Hadley, Steven, and Clive Gray. 2017. ‘Hyperinstrumentalism and Cultural Policy: Means to an End or an End to Meaning?’ Cultural Trends 0 (0): 1–12. doi:10.1080/09548963.2017.1323836.)
Instrumental(ism): The justification and/or understanding of culture in terms of its non-cultural outcomes for society and economics. Cultural instrumentalism however differs from hyperinstrumentalism because it includes discussion of the relations between cultural value and its non-cultural outcomes [see also Hyperinstrumentalism].

Metaphor: a type of analogy that suggests one object can be understood with the properties or character of something else, e.g. heart of stone.

Metonym: literally another name for something but without implying the transfer of properties as in metaphor, e.g. the academy, the dole etc.

Mode: One of the most semantically heavy concepts in music studies and sociologies of music and culture. It is generally used to distinguish one means of doing things over another within the confines of a totallizing system of practice (e.g. church mode theory in musicology). However, it is also widely used in discourse studies to distinguish a ‘socially agreed channel of communication’ between different humans such as music, written text, verbal text, still images, moving images, gesture, colour, etc. This is a high-level analytical term that has led in communications theory and social semiotics to the study of multimodality (the study of communication using more than one mode, i.e. text, image, sound etc.). See further Van Leeuwen, Theo. 2004. Introducing Social Semiotics: An Introductory Textbook (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge).

Multimodality: The study of human communication involving more than one mode, e.g. films use verbal speech, music and moving image (amongst others) and posters use image and text. Recently, becoming an area of increasing importance for music studies as we move towards a position whereby we analyse how music means but without the Kantian problems of the false binaries between objective and subjective truth. See further: Machin, David. 2007. Introduction to Multimodal Analysis (London: Hodder Arnold).

Metaphor: Describing one thing with the characteristics of another, e.g. she sings like an angel. (distinct from metonym).

Misophonia: When a common sound sets off an emotional reaction.



Parallelism: Balancing two or more phrases with the same or similar grammatical structure. E.g. ‘…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’ Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (from Wikipedia)

Performance: Richard Baumann defines it as a self-conscious process of demonstrating communicative competence to an audience. I (Simon McKerrell) would go further and say that performance involves a display of consciously aesthetic communication. Baumann stresses that we should think about what is ‘conventionally performed’ and also ‘…what range of speech activity is considered susceptible to performance, and what range is conventially performed’ (Bauman, Richard., ‘Verbal Art as Performance’, in Science and Social Science, p.38; also found in American Anthropologist 77(2) (1975): 290-311.). It follows therefore, that a ‘genre’ can be thought of as basically a certain culturally bounded discourse or performance. Worth remembering that in the vernacular usage most people think of it as a special sort of public act with special significance aimed at an audience.

Rehtorical Annihilation: The destruction or attack upon of a concept, idea, point of view, community or person etc., through the use of essentializing and false logic or other rehtorical devices.

Sonic homologies: attempting to make the sound of the song imitate the sound of the object expressed; e.g. fingerpicked guitar imitating waterfall.

Synechdoche: Where the part stands for the whole, e.g. the chorus line of a song invokes the meaning of the total song (e.g. I would walk five hundred miles etc.)

Participatory Music


Popular Music




Social Capital: Has various strands of meaning according to its different usages. In the most common sense it refers to the advantage that accrues from human relationships often expressed in terms of an intangible power or advantage over others. The term however has also been used in a more Marxist sense to denote the power of the bourgeoisie to exploit lower social groups for economic gain and entrenching social inequalities. There is a very good introduction to its provenance since the mid-19th century in Raymond Williams Keywords here.

Social Distance

Technology of the Self

Technological Determinism


Traditional Music


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