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A song is a relatively short musical composition for the human voice (possibly accompanied by other musical instruments), which features words (lyrics). It is typically for a solo singer, though may also be a duet, trio, or for more voices (works with more than one voice to a part, however, are considered choral). The words of songs are typically of a poetic, rhyming nature, although they may be religious verses or free prose. Songs can be broadly divided into many different forms, depending on the criteria used. One division is between "art songs", "popular songs", and "folk songs". Other common methods of classification are by purpose (sacred vs secular), by style (dance, ballad, Lieder, etc.) or by time of origin (Renaissance, Contemporary, etc).

Colloquially, song is commonly used to refer to any music composition, even those without vocals (though in music styles that are predominately vocal-based, a composition without vocals is often called an instrumental).


Cultural types

Art songs

Art songs are songs created for performance in their own right, or for the purposes of a European upper class, usually with piano accompaniment, although they can also have other types of accompaniment such as an orchestra or string quartet, and are always notated. Generally they have an identified author(s) and require voice training for acceptable performances. The German word for song, "Lied" (plural: "Lieder"), is used in French and English-speaking communities to refer to the serious art song, whereas in German-speaking communities the word "Kunstlied" (plural: "Kunstlieder") is used to distinguish art song from folk song ("Volkslied"). The lyrics are often written by a lyricist and the music separately by a composer. Art songs may be more formally complicated than popular or folk songs, though many early Lieder by the likes of Franz Schubert are in simple strophic form. They are often important to national identity.

Art songs feature in many European cultures, including but not limited to: Russian (romansy), Dutch (lied), Italian (canzoni), French (mélodies), Scandinavian (sånger), Spanish (canciones). Cultures outside of Europe may have what they consider to be a classical music tradition, such as India, and thus feature art songs.

Of the romantic music era, the art song is considered one of the most distinctive music forms developed. The accompaniment of pieces of this period is considered as an important part of the composition. The art song of this period is often a duet in which the vocalist and accompanist share in interpretive importance. The pieces were most often written to be performed in a home setting although today the works enjoy popularity as concert pieces. The emergence of poetry during this era was much of what inspired the creation of these pieces by Brahms, Schumann, Schubert and other period composers. These composers set poems in their native language. Many works were inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Heinrich Heine. An art song with a German text is often referred to as a Lied. The romantic art song was often reflective of the popular poetic notions of despair created by places, legends, nature or lost love. Some composers would interpret the poem literally and create music which imitated the music and imagery of the music. The vocal melody was created to reflect the form and emphasis of the poem. The mood of the piece would often be summarized in the closing piano section called a postlude. To reflect the stanzas of a poem, the composer could use strophic form to reuse music for each stanza. Another method would be to write new music for each stanza to create a unique form, this was through-composed form known in German as durchkomponiert. A combination of both of these techniques in a single setting was called a modified strophic form. Often romantic art songs sharing similar elements were grouped as a song cycle. (Kamien, 217–18)

Popular songs

Popular songs are songs which may be considered in between art songs and folk songs. They are usually accompanied in performance and recording by a band. They are not anonymous in origin and have known authors. They are often but not always notated by their author(s) or transcribed after recording and tend to be composed in collaboration more often than art songs, for instance by an entire band, though the lyrics are usually written by one person, usually the lead singer. Popular songs are often a part of individual and cultural, but seldom national, identity. Performers usually often have not undergone formal voice training but highly stylized vocal techniques are used. Many people consider songs in popular music to have in general simpler structures than art songs, however, musicologists who are "both contemptuous and condescending [of popular music] are looking for types of production, musical form, and listening which they associate with a different kind of music...'classical music'...and they generally find popular music lacking" (Middleton 1990, p.103).

Song structure or how a pop song is constructed

Popular songs almost always have a well defined structure. The song is constructed using three to five individually distinct musical sections, which are then strung together to form the complete song. A structural analysis of a typical pop song is as follows:

The above pop song structure is an extremely common way of building a modern pop song, including heavy metal, hip hop, rock songs and all other genres of pop songs. Some extremely musically simple song structures have songs which have only a single section which is repeated with slight modifications in order to sustain a listener's interest in the song.

Pop songs also have rhyming schemes which are commonly used by lyricists. These are classified using capital letters of the English alphabet. For example, a song's verse section may have this rhyming scheme: ABAC ABAD. This means that the verse comprises of eight lines. Lines 1, 3, 5 and 7 rhyme with each other. Also, lines 2 and 6 rhyme. Whereas lines 4 and 8 do not rhyme with any lines.

Folk songs

Folk songs are songs of often anonymous origin (or are public domain) that are transmitted orally. They are frequently a major aspect of national or cultural identity. Art songs often approach the status of folk songs when people forget who the author was. Folk songs are also frequently transmitted non-orally (that is, as sheet music), especially in the modern era. Folk songs exist in almost every, if not every, culture. For more on folk songs, see Folk music.

For a list of influential songs, see:

  • The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll
  • The Grammy Hall of Fame Award (also includes many albums)
  • The annual Eurovision Song Contest includes a list of winners

Song forms

See also


  1. Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.
  2. Kamien, Roger. Music : An Appreciation. Mcgraw-Hill College; 3rd edition (August 1, 1997) ISBN 0070365210

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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