On What a Song Is

It seems like I’m increasingly often hearing people — especially, but not exclusively, Americans — referring to things as ‘songs’ that are not, in fact, songs. {.has-dropcap}

For example, Doctor Who does not have a theme song. Nor does Eastenders — though long ago a song using the Eastenders theme music made a dent in the UK charts.

Red Dwarf and Firefly, to take two more science-fictional examples, do have theme songs.

Because here’s the truth of it: it’s not a song if it doesn’t have words. One or more human voices singing (because the verb sing goes with the noun song, obviously) is what is needed to make a piece of music into a song.

Those first examples above? Those are theme tunes. It’s not hard to understand the difference. For the Eastenders-based hit, somebody wrote words to go with the music; somebody sang it.

I’ve been thinking of this as a recent thing, people referring as ‘songs’ to pieces of music without words. But I recalled why Eastenders came to mind. Long ago in the distant past (the 80s) I had a housemate who had an American girlfriend. That programme came on the telly, and she said, ‘Oh, I love this song.’

Much more recently, on the Accidental Tech Podcast (ATP), John Siracusa was trying to locate a beeping sound that something in his basement was making.1 It was a series of electronic tones, played in a melodic fashion. a little tune, in other words. But he repeatedly referred to it as a ‘song’. Which it very definitely was not.

Other Takes

I’m not saying there are no grey areas here. What about the voice used as an instrument, where it only makes wordless tones; mouth-music, as we used to call it? Or pieces that are largely instrumental, but have one vocal piece thrown in, like Glenn Miller’s ‘Pennsylvania 65000’, where the band stop playing at a couple of points and shout the title? {.has-dropcap}

Or Mendelssohn has a series of pieces entitled ‘Songs Without Words’. What are those, then?

Birdsong, or whale songs? The clue there is in the adjectives, of course: just as nut milk is a milk-like drink made from the relevant nut (or similarly, oats, soya, etc), so birdsong is a song-like thing made by a bird.

Since I’m seeing this as mainly an American thing, let’s consult America’s favourite dictionary, Merriam-Webster:

Definition of song (noun)

  1. the act or art of singing
  2. poetical composition
  3. a) a short musical composition of words and music
    b) a collection of such compositions
  4. a distinctive or characteristic sound or series of sounds (as of a bird, insect, or whale)
  5. a) a melody for a lyric poem or ballad
    b) a poem easily set to music
  6. a) a habitual or characteristic manner
    b) a violent, abusive, or noisy reaction (put up quite a song)
  7. a small amount (sold for a song)

3a is the key one in my argument, clearly. 5a moves disturbingly in the opposite direction, since it refers to ‘a melody’. But since the melody is specifically ‘for a lyric poem or ballad’, the fundamental need for words still stands.

In the end, if it hasn’t got words, it’s not worth a song.

  1. Spoiler: it was the freezer. ↩︎