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What Is A Song?
By Jerry Flattum - 09/27/2004 - 11:40 AM EDT

What is a song? Most people will say it’s a combination of melody and lyric. The more enlightened will add harmony and rhythm, or a beat. Adding to this, it has structure, usually repeats of verses and choruses. In terms of recording, or radio airplay, a song lasts in the three-minute range, a standard that still remains relatively unchanged in the 21st century.

What a song is depends on what kind of song. Irish folk songs, African storytelling songs, Christian hymns and Heavy Metal songs are so different from each other, it’s hard to imagine they all would fall under the same general category as song.

Not all songs can be whistled or sung accapella, nor can they be performed accompanied by a solo instrument and one vocal. The debate of piano/vocal or guitar/vocal demos versus fully produced demos illustrates decisively how vocals, arrangement and production are equally important components of songs as melody and lyric.

An older edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines a song as:

“A piece of music for voice or voices, whether accompanied or unaccompanied, or the act or art of singing.” The Harvard Brief Dictionary of Music (1960 edition) defines a song as, “A short composition for solo voice, usually accompanied by the piano, based on a poetic text and composed in such a way as to enhance rather than to overshadow the significance of the text. In a song, the words and music are of equal importance...”

The Harvard Dictionary goes on to say:

“Practically every age of music has contributed to the song literature, not to mention the universal tradition of folk song…Modern song is characterized by an expression of personal feelings that encompass the whole range of human emotion...(Apel 1960).”

Clearly, dictionary definitions pale in comparison to what a song is in the new millennium. Contrary to such antiquated views, songs are rarely sung solo. They are more likely to be played on guitar, not piano. However, with state-of-the-art recording studios and digital audio workstations, songs are rarely performed solo (Country music, such as the songwriter’s showcase at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, still carry on the traditional of the guitar/vocal performance). And only classical composers would dare call a song a “composition.”

But historical definitions do reflect songs have changed through the centuries…and how they in some ways remain the same. Despite its reputation, Rock music (and all its sub-genres) does not have a monopoly on controversy and rebellion. Tunesmiths have broken the rules for centuries.

The Grove Dictionary continues:

“A new musical style of the late fifth century B.C.E., the “new music” had, according to contemporaries, far-reaching effects on song. For example, unprecedented modal and rhythmic variety was tolerated, instrumental interludes were introduced and texts were set melismatically, in contrast to previous practice, where the music was subservient to the text.”

Under the heading of “Singing,” the author quotes Plato:

“Excessive vocal display has been the object of repeated polemics throughout history. Plato warned about the 'warblings and blandishments of song'; when these are carried to excess, 'the singer melts and liquefies until he completely dissolves away his spirit' (Vol. 2).”

Since antiquity, songs have not only changed structurally but also in how they are performed.

In another excerpt from The Grove Dictionary:

“Until about the 1920s there was no essential difference between classical and popular singing, though a fuller voice and greater technical accomplishment were demanded of opera singers than of those who sang operetta and popular songs (Vol. 2).”

The distinction between simple and complex between classical and popular music is arguable. Singing through a microphone is no less difficult that belting out a note on a stage. Two well-known blues singers, Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, were making their earliest recordings in the 1920s. The “new” recording technologies at that time allowed for great variety of vocal technique and were significant in facilitating the introduction of the blues to white audiences. Rather than a question of technical difficulty, songs became a question of style.

The conversational style characterized by blues singers contrasts with the classical style emphasizing technical proficiency (sustained notes and elaborate vocal flourishes). But even the best-trained musicians will have a hard time playing the blues if they can’t “feel” the blues. And the vocal stylings of R&B artists such as Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston are extremely difficult to imitate without tremendous vocal flexibility strongly rooted in the gospel and blues traditions.

The New Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms defines a song as:

“A term used broadly to refer to verbal utterance that is musically expressive of emotion; hence more narrowly, the combined effect of music and poetry or, by extension any poem that is suitable for combination with music or is expressive in ways that might be construed as musical; also occasionally used to designate a strictly musical composition without text, deemed “poetic” in its expressivity or featuring markedly 'vocal' melodic writing for instruments.”
In another passage from the book:

“Musical meter is aligned with poetic meter, lines of verse are of uniform length and set to musical phrases of the same length (words are not extended or repeated by musical means), and the strophic repetition of the poem is rendered through repetition of music (as in traditional hymn singing).” The passage goes on to say, “Music has traditionally been associated with magic and, of course, with religious experience...and it has throughout known history been thought of as the language of love. The fusion, therefore, of music and poetry in song has been thought to bring about the most perfect communication possible, combining the ineffable expressivity of music with the rational capabilities of words (Brogan 1994).”

Lyric is one of the three general categories of poetic literature, including narrative (epic) and dramatic.

“However useful definitions of the lyric may be, they cannot indicate the great flexibility of technique and range of subjects which have helped this category to comprise the preponderance of poetic literature...the lyric is as old as recorded literature, and its history is that of human experience at its most animated.” On following pages, “Thus, from its primordial form, the song as embodiment of emotion, the lyric has been expanded and altered through the centuries until it has become one of the chief literary instruments which focus and evaluate the human condition (Brogan 1994).”

Rap songs speak to this literary history that has defined what a song is through the ages. Rap is certainly poetic, highly expressive and most certainly emotional. Rap songs most definitely “evaluate the human condition.” But Rap songs are not Country songs, and Country songs are not East Indian Bhangra songs. They all have many things in common. But it is their differences that really define what a song is.

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