Theo van Leeuwen worked as a film and television producer and used to play  jazz before he studied linguistics and became the dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology in Sydney. He is now regarded a key figure in the field of social semiotics. Dispite that, his book “Speech, Music, Sound” is accessible and rich with illustrative examples which makes it an inspiring and rewarding read. His aim is nothing less than the integration of speech, music and other sounds, what we often refer to as noise. In projecting music on to speech and speech on to sound and again sound on to music, he tries to give a more complete picture of spheres which have been treated as separated in the last centuries. He asks the simple question what sound can ‘say’ and how we can interpret the things other people ‘say with sound’. This is what he calls the ‘semiotics of sound’. The meaning of speech, music and sound is then investigated considering the modes of perspective, time, interaction, melody, voice quality and timbre. Examples are drawn from areas as different as classical music, film sound design, radio play, soundscape or advertisment to illustrate the ways in which sound can represent social distance or intimacy or how sequentiality and simultaneity in speech can convey dominance and power. The examples are sometimes not really something new, but are at the same time often very enlightening and thought provoking. In the two final chapters of his book van Leeuwen reveals that he used the ‘metafunctional hypothesis’ of linguist Michael Halliday which he already successfully applied on visual communication in his former publication “Reading Images” (together with Gunther Kress) and imposed it in a similar way on the subject of sound. This however, as van Leeuwen admits, doesn’t work the same way as in the visual sphere and therefore this book do not provide a final theory of the semiotics of sound but more or less an incentive to develop own ‘readings’ of the use of sound as a medium. I missed certain ideas, for instance the recognition of musical genres as a semiotic process, which can be seen as a form of pattern recognition, but this do no harm to the inspiration this book can cater for the interested sound practioner.

Read an interview with the author, which is a bit more academic.