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.
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.
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?
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)
- the act or art of singing
- poetical composition
- a) a short musical composition of words and music
b) a collection of such compositions
- a distinctive or characteristic sound or series of sounds (as of a bird, insect, or whale)
- a) a melody for a lyric poem or ballad
b) a poem easily set to music
- a) a habitual or characteristic manner
b) a violent, abusive, or noisy reaction (put up quite a song)
- 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.
Spoiler: it was the freezer. ↩