Professor Martin Irvine Seminar Music Analysis Worksheet Using a semiotic Description Method

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Professor Martin Irvine

Seminar Music Analysis Worksheet
Using A Semiotic Description Method

When describing and explaining how the “stacks of sound moving in time” that we call music create the meanings we understand and feel, we need a method to try to capture how the sounds become meanings, values, identities, and emotions. Musicology (the formal study of music) provides a useful method.

In doing this exercise, you’ll find it’s like trying to catch the grammar and meanings we use in everyday sentences (spoken or written): it seems obvious and transparent, yet all these collective, intersubjective signifiers (perceptible details) add up the meanings we assume when we listen to, create, or play a musical composition.
The Steps:

With the following worksheet as a guide, we’ll begin with the method known as “decomposition” or “segmentation” (breaking something down into constituent compositional units). This means mapping out the musical sound features (the properties or qualities that you hear in a specific piece), and when they appear in the music (approximate time stamp). (For examples, see my description of songs by The Thievery Corporation on pp. 11-12 of the Music as Meaning System essay).

Working Through Syntax and Lexicon to Encyclopedia

The first step is an inventory of what you hear and when. The features in the mix are the tokens for getting the genre or musical category (the types) understood for the piece. You’ll notice the vocabulary (lexicon of combined units) but quickly make associations with the universe of meanings and values outside the specific song (relations in the cultural encyclopedia).

Repetition is a major feature of popular music syntax (combinatorial grammar): repeated rhythm, riffs, vamps, melody lines, chord changes. A new song inserted in the mix of known music is often enjoyed for slight variations in the form, but the variations can add up to an identifiable sound.
As we’ve seen with other art forms, what is absent or unexpressed (though known and assumed) can be as meaningful and even more powerful than what’s obviously present because the musical piece comes from a dialogic context. The choice of using or not using certain highly coded sounds (examples: +/- acoustic instrument sounds; +/- harmony or melody; +/- kinds of rhythm sounds; +/- ) in a genre is a cue for positioning meanings.
[Print out the following page]

Chris Brown and Tyga: “Ayo” Song Analysis—2/18/2015 Scott Folks

Music Properties/Qualities

What is Present/

Absent (+/-)

Meaning Associations for sounds

& timestamp of sound stacks

Pitch and tones

(where there sounds are along the scale of low to high frequencies that we can hear; notes in context of a scale, key, or chord)

NOTE: Instrumental Timing
Fugue keyboard riff

Vocal sample


Synth bass lick

Hi-Hat Tick


Scratch Lick into Hook

Foot In

Fingersnaps in hook

Foot dropout

Foot back in













Melody (the sequence of notes in the time frames of the music)

Fugue keyboard melody variances throughout

entire song

starting at :10

Harmony (notes stacked together; chord stacks played on instruments)

4-Part swell into hook--counterpoint release to fugue riff
Synth pads double bass line chords throughout

:18 to :28 (repeats from verse into every hook) last swell soars an octave

Rhythm, beat, and tempo:

what kind?

(a standard “BPM”, beats-per-minute, or variation?)

98 BPM

Downtempo Hip-Hop w/ touches of R&B;


Dancehall Influences;

Elements of Hip Hop (Beat & Clap Pattern) Club Music/Electro (Vocal Sample & Synth Swells into hook); R&B (Synth Bass and Pad double);

Phrases, patterns, riffs

(in repetition and recurrence)

Chris is a singer and a rapper;

Tyga is solely a rapper

See above for Musical


Vocal: Chris/Tyga

both have distinctive,

rhythmic, flows which act as overall counterpoint triggers to the beat;

they harmonize vocals in each hook;

Chris ad libs throughout for effect--singing and rapping;

Tyga vocal riffs on outro

Timbre: overall sound quality

(the “sound” and “feel” of an instrument, voice, or whole musical phrase: is it processed sound? distortion? clean acoustic? sound effects?)

Processed vocals and dub-like feel has started to become Chris' signature. Makes his music feel underground while still being "accessible"

Vocal Sample
Bass Synth


Vocal EQ


Almost toy-like EQ—turnarounds are reminiscent of Robert Palmer’s “Every Kind of People”; clean intro;

Backwards loop at 2:42 and 3:46 to outro

Panned L/R throughout
Fattened and Compressed; slightly-exaggerated mix level for drama and layering; each helps push track
Echo effect in verses into each hook (and throughout); then into second half of verses

Chris/Tyga: Chris (floaty in verses where he sings); Tyga (repeat on raps); Chris heavily harmonized and earthy in "Ayo" hook/into final hook; Tyga dry on outro

Hip Hop Attitude with R&B Sheen;

Traditional Pop sensibilities relative to overall structure--particularly, in verse/hook setup

Dynamics of sound (loud to soft, pauses, silences, accentuation, attack)

Fugue riff

Swells (see above)

Claps (see above)

Foot Dropout In Verses

Major Dropouts (other)

Leaves off last note in some verses; flips pattern in other; subtle moves there help accentuate steadier pattern in hook

Typically in first-half of each section

1:50/2:49/3:11/3:30/3:40 (irregular patterns relative to vocal/vibe of track--helps freshen repetitive approach)

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