Theory of Oppositions

Robert Cogan
Date of publication: 

The Theory of Oppositions is an analytical technique developed by Robert Cogan in his book New Images of Musical Sound published in 1985. The technique first segments a piece into model sonorities or "significant formations and details" (Cogan 1985: 6), also referred to as sonic contexts, then it measures these segments against a list of antonym pairs. This then is used to deduce whether the segments are either negative, positive or neutral resulting in a block graph that shows this progression over the entire piece. This is referred to as thetable of opposition.

A table of oppositions, modelled on those used in phonology, is proposed as a way of interpreting spectral phenomena and of encompassing music’s entire tone colour domain. Such a table is constructed so as to include all spectral distributions and the full panorama of available tone colour characteristics (Cogan 1985: 125).

This type of analysis requires that one uses a sonogram, or equivalent, within the first stage of analysis to segment a piece. Segmentation of a piece done both horizontally, into "pillars of distinct sonic occurrences" (Cogan 1985: 104), and vertically by spectral activity.

Spectral Segmentation

Segmentation is defined by the sonorities within a given piece. These can be constituent elements of a sonic event, if applicable, or larger structures of sounds within a specific sonic context.

Opposition Table

Within the table of oppositions there are thirteen antonym pairs. Within these pairs one is considered negative and the other positive. The thirteen pairs are as follows: grave/acute,centered/extreme, narrow/wide, compact/diffuse, non-spaced/spaced, sparse/rich, soft/loud, level/oblique, steady/wavering, no-attack/attack, sustained/clipped, beatless/beating andslow beats/fast beats. There are four responses to each of these pairs: neutral (i.e. neither of the two), mixed, negative or positive. The overall score is then totaled at the bottom of the table, which is then used to show the fluctuations between the segments.

How can it be used?

Cogan not only demonstrates its use within fixed-media works, but he also shows how it can be applied to instrumental and even vocal music. The results of the analysis is a graph that plots the variations of oppositions throughout the piece (or chosen segment) and a table documenting each individual variation for each segment against the thirteen antonym pairs.


COGAN, R. (1985) New Images of Musical Sound Cambridge, Harvard University Press.