Tune? Piece? Song? Well, what then?

October 5, 2009 at 05:44 PM ·

The issue of people using the term 'song' to refer to any piece of music has come up again, and that prompted me to think more seriously about it than I had.

I think it's not really very important.  There are far worse things happening in our culture currently.  Yes it is possible that this degradation of verbal precision is symptomatic of larger issues.

It may also just be an example of a natural shift in usage.  Even people who know they are listening to a symphony or a sonata will do it.  Why?  Are they stupid?  I don't think so, not all of them.  Badly educated?  Probably, but that may not be the actual cause.  Obviously it would not be the first time a word in English developed very different meanings according to context.

People don't always want to use the technical name for a piece of music.  It has always been perfectly reasonable for a knowledgeable person to choose to say "this is a lovely piece" instead of "this is a lovely symphony".  As was said already 'piece' isn't exactly an appealing word for that context, and in modern usage it has developed a less savory connotation which may have contributed to people using it less, at least in past decades.

So there may be something deeper going on, a tendency to want to express that a piece of music is musical, is affecting, like a 'song', so that when people reach for a word to indicate a piece of music, they shy away from a technical term like 'symphony' and choose instead the evocative 'song'.

I am all for precision in language, and logic in thought.  I wouldn’t use ‘song’ in this way, and in some contexts I might be so pedantic as to correct someone.  But I don't see the issue as a big deal.  It's not offensive, it's not a clear indication of anything in particular

Perhaps professionals in music should see this shift in usage as a sign that they have failed to offer a better alternative to 'piece' or 'tune' (which has a kind of folksy cachet which won't appeal to everyone) as a word to refer to "an instance of music".

My question for those who are really troubled by it would be:  if this issue bothers you regardless of context, does it really mean everything you assign to it?

Replies (41)

October 5, 2009 at 06:36 PM ·

 There's nothing deeper going on here. Most people call genres "song" because that's 99.999% of what they listen to. In other words, ignorance. I don't let my students use the word song unless it's a song. It's no different that referring to an opera as a play or golf as tennis.

October 5, 2009 at 08:10 PM ·

"A rose is a rose is a rose" 

October 5, 2009 at 09:43 PM ·

I can just tell again that saying a "song" doesn't mean you are less intelligent at all like it was suggested there!  It's just that you didn't learn yet the word people normally use in the "field" as we say. Oups sorry, i should have answered to your question but I can't since I'm not that bothered by this even if it's better to use the correct word if you know it.


October 6, 2009 at 02:39 AM ·

While I'm relieved to be able to write that I've never heard anyone use "song" in the context of a piece of instrumental music, and while it does have a certain whimsical charm to it, it's not something I'd expect to hear from someone over the age of six or so.

So far as I'm concerned, "song" is intimately tied to the human voice, and almost always involves words.

I think I'd conclude that it would have to be spoken by a blond California female if it were to be used at all in such a context; my reaction would depend on the specific blond female. In any case, it would certainly have an impact on my impression of the person, her intelligence, education, and general character. If she were under the age of reason I'd probably be charmed. If she was not a native speaker of English (American?) I'd of course make allowances.

As to "importance", nah, not very.  But I wouldn't hire her for any job requiring the use of language.


October 6, 2009 at 04:24 AM ·

It is my understanding that songs are sung and pieces are played.

October 6, 2009 at 05:52 AM ·


presumably if such malapropism is permissible then `fidelio` can now be referred to as `the Beethoven violin concerto?`

Need more prunes, prunes,  songs,  prunes


October 6, 2009 at 06:00 AM ·

The use of the word 'song' seems to me to be more populer among Americans rather than Europeans, infact I dont think I've ever heard a European refer to the Mendelssohn violin concerto as a 'song' but I've certainly read it many times on this site. Language easily becomes distorted in time and one only has to think of todays techno language (sms for example) to imagine what will happen to language as time passes by.I myself left England in 1980 and when I return for holidays relise how antiquated my English has become.

October 6, 2009 at 06:21 AM ·

 "The use of the word 'song' seems to me to be more populer among Americans rather than Europeans"

Yes, because Americans are more ignorant. 

October 6, 2009 at 02:43 PM ·

So what is the political correct definition of a) Song, b) Piece in the opinions of the members here?

October 6, 2009 at 03:14 PM ·

Sing a song and play a piece.





October 6, 2009 at 04:18 PM ·

and try to do the two at the same time...   : )


October 6, 2009 at 04:18 PM ·

A few disconnected observations.

Apart from lack of differentiation, the indiscriminate use of "song" for every piece of music may also indicate the insight that singing is the basis of much musical expression :) My new teacher asks me to sing the pieces that I'm playing, again blurring the distinction in a fruitful way.

And I wonder what the influence of commercial enterprises such as eMusic and ITunes is. Today I got an advertisement from eMusic: 75 Free Songs -- Yours to Keep!

Dutch poet-novelist Anna Enquist, who trained as a pianist, calls pieces such as the second movement of the Italian Concerto and the Aria of the Goldberg Variations "songs". They are.

October 6, 2009 at 04:27 PM ·

And don't forget about Mendelssohn's "'Pieces' Without Words"


October 7, 2009 at 10:43 AM ·


the problem with using the wrong words for a universally recognized something else is that one has to be consistent.

This will wreak havoc with the already much maligned codsong industry.



October 7, 2009 at 11:15 AM ·

I have been trying to resist jumping in here and letting off steam since the beginning of the thread, but can resist no longer. This wrong use of the word 'song' is one of my pet hates. It makes me squirm. I've always thought that it undoubtedly came from iTunes, and therefore it is sort of understandable that it has come into general use to describe anything.

While one may always be striving towards flexibility of thinking and open-mindedness, and deploring rigidity of thinking, in this I have to make an exception. It is just so very wrong to call a movement of a sonata, or symphony, a 'song' - in fact, to describe anything that is not a song, a song. But it is so prolific now, you just have to shrug resignedly and try not to think about it, and hope it'll go away sometime.

'Song' used like this ranks equally with my other pet hate, which is that these days on the London Underground the announcements over the PA are all directed to 'customers'. We used to be 'passengers'. But now we're getting into politics.

Here's a question: if iTunes had not called the tracks 'songs', what might they have called them that would have been better?

October 7, 2009 at 11:40 AM ·

In terms of software the use of the term "song" as a global reference for a composition goes back well before itunes. I use this great audio-midi sequencer called Digital Performer that organizes tracks into "chunks" and then "songs", as it has done, or did in its previous version "Performer" since the mid-eighties. "Chunks" is easier to live with when working in the abstract on a composition, but then to see that word "song" is always a minor irritation. 

Clearly the MIDI sequencer market was supported in the beginning mostly by those from the pop-rock industry whose universe was "the song", Anyway I see its misuse as one of the more innocent abuses of language. Much more irritating when words are deliberately misused for more insidious political ends.

October 7, 2009 at 03:46 PM ·

 "the indiscriminate use of "song" for every piece of music may also indicate the insight that singing is the basis of much musical expression"

Sorry Bart, but I think we're still in the realm of ignorance, not insight. It's like saying most Americans believe in creationism because they have some special insight. Yikes!

Music has become commodified, with the basic unit being the "song" (the song unit has actually been pegged to the weight of 4,000 cesium atoms held in a ziplock baggie in an adjunct professor's bachelor pad in a suburb of Paris). On iTunes, these "songs" go for 99 cents apiece.

Just think about it:  you can buy a recording of the Chaconne, with all that went into it on the part of composer and performer, for less than the plastic crap they sell at the Dollar Store!

October 7, 2009 at 05:18 PM ·

If someone imitates speach on a violin, I do not know what the tecnique is called, does that transform a piece in to a song?

And what's the definition of a tune?

October 7, 2009 at 10:46 PM ·

 I'd say if someone imitates the voice they're still not singing. If I imitate a goat on the violin (something of which I'm oft accused), do I become a goat? Don't answer that.

I equate tune with melody: a complete musical thought with a full cadence.

October 7, 2009 at 11:16 PM ·

Good points!

October 8, 2009 at 05:35 AM ·

English - The girl plays the piece well.

American - That babe (doll) sure can pull a swell song.

October 8, 2009 at 10:33 AM ·

Hahahahaha! Aint it the truth!

American; West Coast= "That chic can jam!"

October 8, 2009 at 04:09 PM ·

If she's singin', she got pipes... if she playin', she got game !   Some people got it all goin' on... ;-)

October 8, 2009 at 06:25 PM ·

Since I teach 5th graders, let me ask this question: Can you honesly refer to "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" and "London Bridge is Falling Down" as "pieces" with a straight face? I think there are situations when the word "song" can be used for instrumental pieces, such as the ones I mentioned above. If they were originally written to be sung with the human voice, do they somehow magically change simply because the timbre of the performance changes? And what about the advice that my teacher gives me when she says I should "sing" more in certain phrases. Should I "piece" more in these passages?

I, like most people, don't like to hear a symphony called a song, but I really don't let it bother me. Perhaps because I don't hear much difference from the human voice and a beautiful instrumental performance. 

October 8, 2009 at 08:09 PM ·


>can you honesly refer to "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" and "London Bridge is Falling Down" as "pieces" with a straight face?

Absoultely no problem at all.

I do have trouble with the notion of `the right to bare arms.`



October 8, 2009 at 09:40 PM ·

I'm with Buri! Bare Arms is rediculous.  Everyone should where long sleves!

October 9, 2009 at 06:00 AM ·

 I tell kids like it is:

"Go Tell Aunt Rhody" is a creepy paean to Dad's rather unsavory "friendship" with mom's bipolar sister. Yeah, sure--she was just a good listener!

And London bridge? Technically it's a "petit bourgeoise morceau de l'architecture de l'eau."

I don't require that elementary-age kids understand the above--just that they memorize and are able to spell them.

October 9, 2009 at 11:38 AM ·

Whats wrong with the word tune, there used to be an ad on british television telling us that 'tunes help you breathe more easily' so it sounds as though playing a good old tune is actually good for your health!!



October 9, 2009 at 02:24 PM ·

I like the word "tune". To me it's like people calling their violin a "fiddle" (like Perlman and others do).

October 11, 2009 at 02:49 PM ·

IMO, the best thing that anyone can do for themselves is learn how to use their own language. This is the basis of all thought and the underlying requirement for any kind of excellence, academic or professional.

On another forum, this was the subject line:

           "Anyone ever heared of a Yurea Violins on ebay?"

There are two glaring errors: the past tense of "hear" is not "heared" but "heard." If you're going to say violins, plural (more than one), then you should not say "of a Yureau.."

Another contributor in that forum refuses to put a space after a comma and two spaces after a period. It's equivalent to picking your nose in public (i.e., annoying, unpleasant and distracting).

I don't care what anyone says; the cold fact of life is that language is an indication of how well read the person is and how intelligent they are. But it should not be surprising that the Bell Curve is accurate.

October 11, 2009 at 03:31 PM ·

Personally, the reason I wince when I read or hear someone refer to Wieniawski D Major Polonaise as a "song", is that it is symptomatic of the person's lack of interest in the concert repertory.  Years ago there was a higher correlation between violin students and music lovers.  A healthy motivation for studying the violin is being profoundly moved by great performances of great masterpieces. Someone who feels this way is not likely to call the Beethoven Violin Concerto a song.

October 11, 2009 at 09:49 PM ·

Hi,     Connie, maybe the person who wrote this was an immigrant, a foreing person who doesn't master english perfectly.  I make huge mistakes in english because it isn't my first language... So I know one can often pass for a stupid when one is not that much (as a foreigner, or learner of a new language etc)   I've seen this with many people.

Scott, good french : )

Oliver, I agree very much! I am often saddly surprise to see that around me, (even if it's a serious school. Well, it is suppose to be since it's a conservatory) violin students are not all real violin lovers, don't know anything (or not much) of the violin culture (repertoire, masters etc) and don't seem to be in love with the art.  They maybe are more interested in their own little personnal accomplishments and fame rather than seeing the ones of others??? Perhaps some young ones do it for their parents???   I love music and listen to much classical music from great masters. I enjoy listening violin as much as playing.  I love to go to concerts when I have the chance (any kinds, no need to be expensive to be interesting) I know the names of much of the violin repertoire scores (not all for sure but you know what I mean...)    But I must admit that not every student has real interest.  (even some who play fairly well...) The relation (corelation) is not that strong. This is also my impression. You can force violin but I don't think you can force passion...  Is it me or we can maybe say it's because people now have many things in what they have interest. 


October 11, 2009 at 10:27 PM ·

I would maintain that the base of the argument is a concern about the widening gap between the middle class and the poor, or more likely, the erosion of the middle class. And all of this, I believe, is a function of language use.

Look at Jay Leno's "Jaywalking." He had a young woman on there with a degree in English from Harvard, who couldn't come up with the name of Tom Sawyer. We don't read, we don't think clearly, and -- because of this -- we can't distinguish what is important in society.

At least in this thread we're sticking to the subject and leaving the ad hominem attacks to the kids.

October 11, 2009 at 11:54 PM ·

See Emily Grossman's blog of October 6, 2009 and comments.

October 12, 2009 at 12:53 AM ·

That really didn't help much, Pauline. 

October 12, 2009 at 01:46 AM ·

 "I would maintain that the base of the argument is a concern about the widening gap between the middle class and the poor, or more likely, the erosion of the middle class. And all of this, I believe, is a function of language use."

Hmmm....nope, I think American ignorance is pretty well distributed across class. After all, the previous President "attended" Yale, and look at his butchery of the language. 

October 12, 2009 at 06:16 AM ·

Connie, do you not think immigration could also play a rather large part in changing language?I for example was born in England to German parents but have spent more of my life living outside England and speaking other languages.I speak three languages fluently but am the first to admit  none of them to perfection.I didn't grow up in a home where English was well spoken or where English culture and literature was available to be soaked up.Does this make me less intelligent than someone who was surrounded by English culture.?While I find the use of the word 'song' is often inappropriate it is probably a natural mutation (did Suzuki use the word song to describe the pieces in his books?).Oh and if one has to be careful about every typo I think the forum would lose its spontanaiety and many people would be too frightened to post in case they are labelled an ignorant imbecile.

October 12, 2009 at 07:43 AM ·


>f one has to be careful about every typo




October 12, 2009 at 10:16 AM ·

@ Janet:  I cannot remember where, but it mentions that in the past when cultures are shared, so are languages.  A good example is how many words in the English language (with much Latin & Greek) has many words from German origins as well as many other languages.

October 12, 2009 at 03:12 PM ·

When a student  at first refers to a piece of music that is not technically a song as a song, I gently but persistently explain the difference.  A song is a member of a larger category- a musical composition. Not all musical compositions are songs  but all songs are musical compositions. I don't have a problem with the word "piece" either in reference to a piece of music, because we also have "masterpieces", pieces of music that are exceptional in quality or accepted as such by many.  What I want the students to come to understand is that there are many kinds of pieces of music and a song is but one among them. I will also tell them about  pieces  known as  "songs without words" like those of Mendelssohn and explain that because the word "song" traditionally refers to a piece that has words set to music there is a special category that distinguishes itself by being described as a "song without words".



November 24, 2009 at 06:43 PM ·

Here's the kind of stuff I'm talking about (see below). You have to think this is funny; if you don't, you have no sense of humor:

• Open Question: What is the name of this violin music? I don't know where it's from or how to explain it but it sounds dramatic. Any guesses you might have would be helpful. =] (Ed. note: no link included in question)

• Open Question: need a new classical violin song to learn. any suggestions? Just for background: ive been playing for 12 years. some songs im learning are : bach partita III, bruch concerto, mozart concerto V, rode caprices

• Open Question: songs for the violin? ok well i dont take violin lessons any more cuz my skool doesnt have them so i was wondering if anyone new any websites with songs on them but no too hard ons and not too easy thx!!!!!

from Humorous Questions


Note:  In case anyone cares to suggest that these are anecdotal examples, that would be true if these examples were evident only a few times in every few days.  But let me disabuse you of that notion. YahooAnswers has a function whereby you can request an RSS feed on a word or phrase.  I have RSS feeds on violin, viola, piano, orchestra and musicology.  There are hundreds of such ill-conceived missives, every single day.

Does it bother me that most people appear not to be able to spell, follow simple rules of grammar, or think logically?  There's not much I can do about it, so no. 

Does it bother you?

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