51d8Z+KG5eL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_Andrew Shenton’s groundbreaking cross-disciplinary approach to Messiaen’s music presents a systematic and detailed examination of the compositional techniques of one of the most significant musicians of the twentieth century as they relate to his desire to express profound truths about Catholicism.

It is widely accepted that music can have mystical and transformative powers, but because ‘pure’ music has no programme, Messiaen sought to refine his compositions to speak more clearly about the truths of the Catholic faith by developing a sophisticated semiotic system in which aspects of music become direct signs for words and concepts. Using interdisciplinary methodologies drawing on linguistics, cognition studies, theological studies, and semiotics, Shenton traces the development of Messiaen’s sign system using examples from many of Messiaen’s works and concentrating in particular on the Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité for organ. This suite contains the most sophisticated and developed use of a sign system, and represents a profound exegesis of Messiaen’s understanding of the Catholic triune God.

By working on issues of interpretation, Shenton endeavours to bridge the traditional gap between scholars and performers and to help people listen to Messiaen’s music with spirit and understanding.

Olivier Messiaen’s System of Signs was awarded the 2009 Miller Book Award from the American Guild of Organists Organ Library.



Messiaen’s theology

Communicating through music

Adding a communicable language

Linguistic analysis of the ‘langage communicable’

Issues of cognition of Messiaen’s ‘langage’ and signs

The semiotic system in context; meaning and mentalese

Select discography





‘… the book is packed with creative and critical thinking.’ Tempo

‘… Shenton’s book […] is of fundamental importance […] (His) approach is the deepest and most empathetic to Messiaen that I have yet come across. There is so much to be learnt from this book, and as such, I recommend it wholeheartedly to those, like me, who regard Messiaen as the seminal composer of organ music in the twentieth century.’ Journal of the British Institute of Organ Studies

‘ … (an) exhaustive study […] Its thoroughness is admirable, and the excursions down the by-ways leading from the central argument are thought-provoking and interesting. Shenton always puts both sides of his argument, in which he is helped, perhaps unfortunately, by the frequent ambivalence of Messiaen himself.’ The Organists’ Review

‘It is good that in this anniversary year we have such an important study of Messiaen’s music as this one. Andrew Shenton has amassed a wealth of material from a wide range of sources to produce an excellent 200 page scholarly work that will do a considerable amount to aid the understanding and interpretation of the composer’s output. […] There is also a select discography, a full bibliography, a glossary, and a good index. There are so many ways in which this book stands out as being impressive […] above all the way in which Shenton brings together all the material in such a detailed and comprehensive study of the music.’ The Organ

Olivier Messiaen’s System of Signs is published by Ashgate and is available online via the  Ashgate site, and online stores such as Amazon.