Despite my reluctance to come across sounding like William Safire or Andy Rooney, I have a particular peeve with the popular malapropism of the word “song” to connote any piece of music. I know that expressions like “musical composition” or “piece of music” sound inordinately clunky and are therefore less than cool these days, but then maybe we need to come up with a new word rather than misuse an old one.
Once upon a time, songs referred exclusively to single-movement musical compositions involving a singer or singers. They typically employed sung language which was more poetic than narrative, and most required a relatively short duration (typically three minutes). When composers of instrumental music wanted to make reference to song-like qualities in other types of compositions—such as short, lyrical, solo piano pieces—they would call them “songs without words,” as Mendelssohn once famously did.
These distinctions were not just limited to the realm of European classical music. This past weekend, I reacquainted myself with Harry Smith’s exhaustive Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of 84 short tracks culled from his vast library of pre-Second World War 78s into three neatly-distilled 2-LP volumes: social music, ballads, and songs. Social music was largely instrumental or otherwise functional: dance music, hymns, etc. Ballads strained the time constraints of the 78rpm era weaving complex stories through their sung texts. Everything else that was sung was a song.
Remember “Tequila”? It was a quirky instrumental recorded by a group of west coast sessionmen who called themselves The Champs. It sold more than a million copies and won a Grammy in 1958. Around that time, there were other non-songs that charted as well including Martin Denny’s cover of Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village” and lots of surf rock. As late as 1972, when Gershon Kingsley’s quirky electronic etude “Popcorn” was a surprise summer hit, a distinction was still being made between songs and instrumentals.
But now everything is a song in popular parlance, whether it has words or not and no matter how long it is. As a result, the song paradigm—which still assumes a normative status of vocal, short, and in one movement—determines how all music is listened to. When’s the last time an “instrumental” got on the Billboard charts? The song paradigm also frequently proscribes how music gets parsed out in digital databases. In a world where sound files are downloaded individually rather than bunched together onto recordings, these databases threaten to become our prime distribution model. Although some headway has been made with classical music in the age of the iPod, there are still applications where the only fields open to music files are artist and song title. This is a total mess if your “song” happens to be called Symphony No. 7 plus it is in four movements and therefore requires more than one sound file.
By calling everything a song, we’ve also paralyzed our ability to make musical distinctions. How can you make sense of a musical landscape where a continuous 45-minute sitar improvisation, a Roger Sessions concerto, and a rap by Chuck D are all called songs? It would be worse than calling all congressmen Republicans. Luckily, at least we know that’s no longer the case!
Please don’t take this as a disdain for songs or songwriters, because it isn’t. I’ve written songs myself and I recognize songwriters who create the music for their songs as composers (as opposed to folks who only write words who are lyricists). But if everything is a song, then all composers are songwriters, which is clearly as false a statement as saying that all composers are symphonists. Ultimately, by calling every possible kind of musical composition a song, we not only demean larger scale works, but we also render the word “song” meaningless.