Songs without words

Robin Hamilton robin.hamilton2 at BTINTERNET.COM
Sun Apr 25 05:50:47 UTC 2010

I have the unnerving impression, following this thread, that I have somehow
strayed into a parallel universe.

David Wake's post at least gives me something to bite on.

Working backwards:

"The usage of "song" to mean "music contained in a single track" in software
such as iTunes will doubtless accelerate this trend."

Well, yes, this might be the case, if that were what iTunes indicates when
it uses the term "song".  Here's the first relevant google hit, from the
iTunes website:

"The Country Throwdown Tour is giving away 7 free songs as a teaser before
their tour. Here are the songs that you can download for FREE on iTunes."

Gosh!  How unexpected!  The "7 free songs" are words set to music.  Perhaps
someone should tell iTunes about their eccentric usage of the term "song" to
signify this, rather than a purely instrumental track.

(I am old, admittedly not quite as old as Wilson, but dredging through the
tattered remnants of my memory, I can barely recall a time when a *purely
instrumental* recording achieved popular success in the UK.  That would be
in the early sixties, with the Shadows, issued on a 45 rpm vinyl disk.  Yes,
children, there was a time ...  And at that, the Shadows only made it into
the Top 10 since they were Cliff Richards' backing group.)

Continuing: "music contained in a single track".  I googled this.  Zero hits
for the entire phrase in quotes.

> In classical music "song" is limited to a musical composition
> featuring the human voice;  the word that generically describes any
> kind of composition is "piece".

Well, yes, and operas consist of a libretto (words) together with a score
(instrumental music), which might be a more familiar way of putting it.
There's also the lyrics (words) vs. tune (music) distinction.

> I don't know whether this distinction
> was ever very widespread in general usage, but it seems to be fast
> disappearing.

My sense is that the distinction isn't disappearing at all, and in the
relevant context, "song" refers to (as it has done in popular music terms
for some considerable time) a unity of words and music.

Insofar as this distinction is blurred, it probably blurs in the opposite
direction, "song" sometimes referring to *simply the words.

Not that this is anything new -- John Donne curiously entitled his lyric
poems, "Songs and Sonets", though none were set to music, and only one of
the entire set consisted of a fourteen line poem.  Then there are William
Blake's _Songs of Innocence_ and _Songs of Experience_ -- no music (at least
in Blake's own text) though there were integral illustrations provided.

Earlier in this thread, I forwarded some of the posts to a friend who is not
only the author of a volume of poems entitled _Twenty Four Preludes and
Fugues on Dmitri Shostakovich_, but is currently at work composing the
verbal side of a song cycle.  Her response (much of which I will omit for
reasons of discretion) was colourful, not to say vitriolic.  However, she
did comment on two specific works which had been mentioned, Pachelbel's
Canon and Songs Without Words:

"Pachelbel's Canon is, like a great many other pieces or works
(note terminology here!), a highly-complex and developed piece of
instrumental music: the fact that the main theme (again note terminology)
can be sung means absolutely bugger-all except that it happens to be

"Incidentally,"Songs Without Words", as I gather the original argument
 referred to, denotes a particular type of simple-sounding one-movement
piano piece, one which sounds as though it could well have words fitted to
it. Mendelssohn is the main exponent of these."

This would seem to concur with David's sense that the technical, if not
popular, term for such a thing is a "piece" -- 'the word that generically
describes any kind of composition is "piece" ' (David Wake).

At one point, I thought that possibly what I was up against here was a
specifically American usage of the term "song", but given that the thread
began with an explicit rejection of an American dictionary -- 'For "song,"
the AHD4 has "a brief composition written or adapted for singing." '
(Benjamin Barrett) -- I don't think this can be the case.

"The AHD4 meaning therefore seems prescriptive in a way that does not
reflect common usage." (Benjamin Barrett)   Well, no, it would seem more
likely that AHD4 is simply correct in this instance, and does, in fact,
reflect common usage.

I've heard of British members of parliament complaining, when an election
goes against them, that they'd like to dissolve the public and elect
another, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at a linguist's desire to
rewrite a dictionary to make it more consonant with his understanding of the
meaning of a word.


The American Dialect Society -

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