Does a "song" have to involve "singing"?

Musical terminology seems to have changed over the years I’ve been paying attention.

Nowadays I see and hear the word “song” used to mean any individual piece of music, even if the “song” has no words and is never “sung” by anybody.

Such things have been dubbed tune, piece, number, instrumental, non-vocal and no telling how many other things.

When did “song” get elevated to the default term for anything that a band or instrumentalist does?

Hell, nowadays mp3 players, audio software, etc. often refer to any individual sound file as a “song” or “music,” even if no music is involved. It’s as though they’re assuming that’s the only thing anyone ever listens to.

I hate the generic use of “song.”

But on the other hand, Mendelssohn wrote eight volumes of “songs without words.”

Huh… The question has never even occured to me.
My whole life (45+ years) I’ve considered an instrumental piece to be every bit as much a “song” as a vocal piece.

The OP is the first time I have ever heard the notion that a “song” must have words.

Missed the edit window, but I thought to actually look up the word “song” and, yep, just about every definition includes something about vocals, words, or singing.

So it seems Rebel Rouser is not a song at all.

I guess it’s just one of those words you never think to look up in the dictionary, since it’s so common.

Me too.

It’s like referring to every work of art as ‘a painting’.

What do you make of bird song and whale song? Or the Song of Roland?

Words have meanings that vary by context. You can say the same gaggle comprises seven geese or six geese and one gander and be correct both times. A sign saying “no animals allowed” can usually be understood not to prohibit human beings from entering.

I’m not clear on your point as it relates to the song in popular music by human beings.

With the exception of a few people who refer to pieces of music as “tracks”, I and most everyone I know uses “song” as a generic term. I’ve never heard of anyone using song exclusively to refer to a piece with vocals.

In my experience the generic term has been ‘piece of music’. ‘Song’ has always implied singing.

I’m a piano major and we just discussed this today in my studio (group of students with the same teacher who perform for each other and critique weekly). Someone announced their piece as a “song” by Mozart and the professor lectured him, saying “song” should be when there are words and a singer. Even though there may be an obvious melody with accompaniment, it’s supposed to be a “work” or “piece.”

I’ve always wondered if the purists think that the term “song” can be applied to the music when there is no vocal part. Seems to me that the purist definition falls flat (;)) because song means only the part of the music which is human vocal chords. So your average pop radio thingy is a musical piece, followed by a song over instrumental music, then more instrumental music, then another song with instrumental music, etc. etc… get over it.

The definition in common modern usage is “a piece of music”, a tune, a composition in it’s entirety.

Pretty much my experience. Although, when I think about it, I don’t refer to an instrumental as a “song.” I call it an “instrumental” or a “tune.” It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, but I generally only call things with vocals “songs.” That said, if someone referred to an instrumental piece as a “song,” it would not cause me to flinch.

Yes, and Tess Trueheart’s teacher is fighting a rearguard action he cannot win. There is no un-awkward name for a piece without singing that both has a succinct name recognizable by all, besides the academics, and no extra-long and overly-technical description that only the academy would understand. The 18th century ended a few years ago. Her teacher should give it up and jump forward two or three centuries. And Tess, you can refer him to me. I am AT LEAST as big a blowhard as he :D.

Really, my email is easily available.

“Piece of music,” “composition,” “work,” etc. are all fine and dandy for classical music, but sound kind of silly when discussing rock or pop music. “Track” is the old standby generic term from the days of LPs and CDs, but is less apt in these days of digital downloads.

“Instrumental” is a traditional term for a composition that does not include voices, although a singer will tell you that the human voice is an instrument. And what to make of pieces of music that have just one or two words or phrases spoken, sampled, or sung? It’s a slippery distinction.

My points were

(1) “song” has long been used to cover many things that do not require a person singing words, and

(2) we needn’t be troubled that words have more or less specific meanings. For instance, “animal” can refer to any member of the kingdom animalia, or to such beings excluding humans, or even to mammals as opposed to, say, arthropods. “Meat” can refer to the edible flesh of any animal, but if one hears that a formal meal includes both a meat and a fish course, one’s head need not explode in confusion. So one can reasonably say a CD has 12 songs or 9 songs and 3 instrumentals, depending on what sort of information one wishes to convey.

Y’know, TWDuke, such an accurate and all-encompassing description sucks the wind clean out of the sails of this thread. :wink: Now, we are left arguing over, oh, nothing. :smiley:

I have a question. What if you’re in an elevator and hear an instrumental version of “Song Sung Blue,” or other popular song? Is it no longer a song if no one is singing it? What of songs such as Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” or TJB’s “Spanish Flea,” which are commonly played as instrumentals, but have written lyrics which have not been recorded as often?

I’m with Wheelz, Zeldar, and Apocalypso. To me, any pop instrumental, such as “Wipeout,” “Pipeline,” or “Feels So Good,” for example, has always been a song. They all have melodies that are as hummable as any tune that has words in it. I don’t run in the circle of people who would make any distinction between a “song” and an instrumental piece, nor do I associate with anyone who cares enough about it to correct me. If hearing me refer to an instrumental piece as a “song” would cause your head to assplode, please warn me so I can put on a raincoat or at least find a Hefty bag to protect me.

It looks like my effort to present the idea in the OP, while avoiding taking a direct stand on it there, has worked. For the record, I’m of the “old school” that prefers reserving “song” for a “piece of music with words” when it is actually sung by a human being, or group thereof.

When you play or hum or even scat the melody and don’t sing it, it is a tune, a melody, a number or a piece. If it’s a longer piece or work, such as a concerto, a sonata, or a symphony, as long as there’s no singing, it needs to be called more than a tune or a number. But it is definitely not a song.

That’s just me. But I resist the notion of referring to anything in pop music as a song if it doesn’t have sung words.

We could expand the discussion elsewhere as to the fundamentals of music being melody, rhythm and harmony. If you add words you get a song, or an oratorio, or an aria, or a chorale, or some other designation. But words are not required for Music.

And to concede a point to TWDuke, music is not required for a song either.

Just to point out how this issue isn’t as trivial as some may be led to think, Wikipedia has some difficulty nailing it down.

If you go to Song - Wikipedia you will notice this line near the top:

This article is about the musical composition. For other uses, see Song (disambiguation).

If you click on that link you’ll see the various meanings (and their entries) listed.

The effort to copy that link here results in the closing parenthesis getting lopped off, yielding a bogus Wikipedia entry!

See for yourself by clicking below.

Ah! Wikipedia!

If a song is “a piece of music with words”, then what are the pieces of music that are sung in made up “languages” by bands like Cocteau Twins, Sigur Ros, Caprice, et al? And what about a piece of music where the only vocal component was melisma? Or bird song and whale song?

All these qualify in my view, but there are no words as we know them in any of them.