I’m Not Playing Their Song

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.

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6 thoughts on “I’m Not Playing Their Song

  1. sgordon

    I dunno… I haven’t come across the “song” issue. I think most people instinctively associate the term “song” with vocals – I certainly do. Anyway, I think under a certain age (those who grew up with CDs) the more common catch-all term is track, so this may be a moot question for future generations.

    In other news: the last instrumental to chart in the top 20 was Kenny G playing Auld Lang Syne in 1999. If I remember right, he holds the record for most charting instrumental “songs” (or whatever you want to call them…) – which doesn’t say much for public taste, but whatever.

    Most charting instrumental since the 80s have some previous association – either covers, holiday themes, or from a TV or movie. Since the heyday of surf rock, it’s been rare that a piece written as an instrumental that wasn’t a work-for-hire in some way or another has charted. Not even sure what the last one was since I wouldn’t know which Kenny G tracks are covers or were written for soundtracks or whatnot, but you might have to go all the way back to Joe Satriani’s Satch Boogie.

    In the end, though, I suppose I could care less what someone calls a piece of mine – song, track, work, “shit” – whatever. Sometimes words change over time. You just have to accept these things.

    Seth Gordon

    Reply
  2. william

    Just to add my vote, I think Frank makes an important point, whether we call the music songs, tracks, or whatever. Popular music is for the radio, and the three minute “song” allows for commercial breaks. The mass media creates a form of cultural isomorphism.

    I sometimes use an old sequencer from the 80s called Dr. T’s Omega (it still has some interestingly unique features). At first the handbook was a little confusing because it called everything a “song.” I think the “misused” term is still common in some of the more modern sequencers – most of which have a commercial orientation.

    I’ve been watching video on YouTube. Some of the clips are great, but very often the most popular are tasteless and even mean-spirited (whatever those terms might mean.) For better or worse, it seems clear that there is a cultural abyss that will always separate most “classical” composers from the vast mainstream of humanity. Isn’t going for something a little more rare and thoughtful part of our work? All the same, I guess that’s no reason not to keep reaching out.

    William Osborne

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  3. jbunch

    How about “aural spew” ? Not to be confused with “oral spew” which refers more to the program notes. “Monaural spew” for old-school electronic music, “choral spew” for…well choral pieces.

    Reply
  4. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    At first I was uncomfortable with ‘song’, but it’s become the commonplace that replaced track or (for those before CDs) cut or side. And it’s short and trips off the tongue.

    Admittedly it has its roots in the recording (the three minutes Frank mentions has to do with recordings, as songs in late 19th century sheet music, for example, are typically much longer), and it has disadvantages for multi-movement works. It doesn’t obviate the specific names or genres, and places a vocabulary burden on artists in other genres with long and extensively developed ‘tunes’, such as jazz.

    We have our own baggage problem with ‘classical’, which doesn’t apply to a great portion of nonpop. (There’s a list of pieces at the end of this blog entry.) But words get stuck. Some have implications (or at least ghosts) that mean something we remember from our own growing up, and it’s not the same today. Another one is ‘electronic music’, which seems to have dropped its meaning out of the heritage of nonpop artists such as Stockhausen or Xenakis to become a pop genre.

    And the proposal is missing. What’s to replace it? A replacement will face the same struggle as ‘nonpop’ has, even though the current occupants of the vocabulary house fail just as ‘song’ does to describe a composition with architectural heft.

    Provide the replacement and create a valuable use for it, and then bang the ground over and over and hope the conservative forces of language pick it up. Maybe you can engage Safire in the discussion.

    Dennis

    Reply
  5. bartalk

    Has anyone noticed that the word
    “show” is replacing “concert”. I recently
    talked to a symphony telemarketer who kept asking me what “shows” I was interested in (I was tempted to say “Lost”) as part of “make your own” subsciption series. And you don’t even want to know his response when I mentioned that I was interested in concerts with contemporary music!

    Reply
  6. JJeffers

    Using the term ‘show’ to describe the type of concert my music is usually on would be wrong, I think. It connotates a certain focus on theatrical elements, which I’m not averse to but most likely there will be none of it.

    The worst I have heard my music referred to is when a jazz pianist sat down with me and a fellow composer friend, and asked if we had written some ‘tunes’ for the upcoming concert. I know it was asked innocently, and I tried not to feel a bit miffed. I knew she had written tunes, but what we were doing was totally different, and I’m not sure she understood that. Anyway…

    I tried to champion ‘concert art music’ for a bit, and have been told it sounds intimidating. I don’t think it is, is an art exhibit intimidating? Aren’t composer’s concerts an exhibit of sound, tapestries of aural timbre? Maybe a bit too poetic. I agree that the term ‘song’ is overused and perhaps an unfortunate generic term we must use to have our little corner of the mainstream music outlets.

    Reply

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