I’m right, you’re wrong … wait, what is a song?

Rock musicians, such as Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin, have experimented with the length and breadth of songs since the 70s. EPA/Adrian Popescu

My daughter came home from school orchestra rehearsal one day and said:

Daughter: We are learning a great new song by Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.
Me: Song, darling? I’d call it a piece.
Daughter: Well, we all call it a song.

What constitutes the cultural object known as a song? Does a song have to have singing in it? Or a verse and a chorus? It seems the word “song” now encompasses any piece of music, in any form, style, genre and from any period. Beneath this linguistic imprecision is the possibility that our fundamental understanding of a song is changing.

In my practice teaching songwriting, I define a song as a melodic/ lyrical top-line situated over a harmonic/ textural/ groove bed. Its sections (verses and choruses) are arranged in a roughly conventional order. Over the last few years, students are presenting examples of electronic instrumental music, without sung melodies, verses or choruses, as “songs”.

Traditionally, the primary tool for songwriting is the human voice, and a song’s social function is to communicate, via a distinctive lyrical/ melodic top-line.

The formal conventions of electronic dance music (EDM) and electronica are products of the tool they are made on, the computer, and their social function, namely Everybody dance now.

C&C Music Factory – Everybody Dance Now.

This music emphasises beat; it is not arranged in an order of verses, choruses and bridges. Pieces are usually longer than a standard song’s 3-5 minutes and feature extended repetitive sections, textural breakdowns and dramatic crescendos of tension that culminate in orgasmic release (known in some circles as “the drop”).

In From Refrain To Rave (1994), musicologist Philip Tagg reflects on EDM’s emphasis on beat and texture, and its lack of a distinct melodic top line. He suggests that, from the Enlightenment to relatively recently, music and visual art in the West have embodied the dualist notion of foreground/ figure and background/ ground.

Tagg calls it “melodic-accompaniment dualism”. EDM, however, is all accompaniment, no melody: background becomes foreground. Dancers share an immersive experience without a sonic-performative focal point (no singer implicitly demanding “listen to this!”). Tagg suggests this represents new communal values that supplant Enlightenment individualism.

Meanwhile, pop/ rock (music that still has a singer) has been picking at the seams of form – the order of sections.

Song form traditionally comprises an expositional section (verse) which leads to an elevated declarative statement (chorus or refrain) that encapsulates the song’s theme. Sometimes the chorus/ refrain culminates in a distinctly memorable musical or lyrical figure – a “hook” (vocal or instrumental) that underlines the main idea of the song.

In the 70s, rock musicians tried stretching the length and breadth of songs, but the convention of alternating expositional and elevated sections persisted until relatively recently. Some of American singer/ songwriter Lady Gaga’s songs, such as Bad Romance, start with a hook; exposition follows and even then it is “hooky”.

Lady Gaga – Bad Romance.

The aim appears to be a series of memorable sonic sensations; the only connective tissue is the thrill of the next moment. Some pop has borrowed beats and textures from dance and club culture. It may now be borrowing an alternative organisational principle, one based not on a cumulative rhetorical lyrical/ melodic gesture but on a series of insistent visceral sensations; one sherbet bomb after the other.

Rock artists such as indie folk band Bon Iver create songs that eschew verses and choruses. In the song Perth, the order of sections seems to be dictated by the dramatic ebb and flow of sonic texture, the imprinting of sound itself on the listener’s sensibility.

Often vocals and lyrics, while signifying an embodied presence (a singer), are indecipherable, sunk into the texture. Pop and rock has often had indecipherable lyrics (my parents: “I can’t understand a word they’re singing”) and visceral sonic effects (the opening chord of Hard Day’s Night by The Beatles) but these discourses have usually been wrapped in the conventions of reiterative verse/ chorus form.

If this underlying organising principle is breaking down, what might be replacing it?

If we put aside the idea of a sequence of verses and choruses, we might consider a song to be a central idea with supporting material that explains, complicates, decorates and/ or gives focus to that central idea. We usually think of an idea as being semantically text based: “the song is about what the lyrics tell us it’s about”.

But recorded pop music has been around long enough that we can apprehend a song’s central idea as sonic, textural and visceral. Melody and harmony have their own semantics in the Classical sense; chords create and either meet or subvert expectations. For example, if we hear, “a shave and a haircut” we expect to hear “two bits!”.

Soul legend James Brown in Prague, 2006. EPA/Hana Kalvachova

Sound and texture have less precise semantics; a noisy bit might mean “get excited”. There are hardly any chord changes in James Brown’s music. His lyrics are often indecipherable, his melodies a series of grunts and evocations, but we know exactly what he means – we feel it.

The texture of sound and groove have become organising principles in popular music. English composer Brian Eno, ever ahead of the game, tinkered with the boundaries of pop/ rock on his early solo albums in the mid-70s. Some tracks appeared to be formless but, nevertheless, had a distinct and memorable sonic character, a stamp that imprinted itself on the listener.

Eno took these discoveries into his work with mainstream acts, particularly U2.

Imprecise use of the word “song” ignores the distinctive character, history, social function and structuring of various types of music. (We could try using musicologist Alan F Moore’s term “track” but it might feel weird saying “I love that track you sang tonight”).

Nevertheless we should strive to make distinctions while being responsive to the fluidity of culture. Sound itself is becoming an organising principle and conveyor of meaning and songs are reflecting this change.

Not all music is a song but songs are changing.