It’s Not a Song

Saturday, June 19, 2010 - 12:00 AM

I am not a stickler type person. I recognize that the English language is a flexible, ever changing colorful source of communication. BUT, I do have a bit of a pet peeve.

Recently, someone asked me, “What was that ‘song’ you played on Saturday morning on WQXR?”  

“Who was singing?” I said.

“Nobody.”, was the response, “I think it was just a full orchestra”.

Startled, I said, “You mean Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?” “Yes, that song!”, said the person. 

I’m not a musicologist, but I’m pretty sure there has to be a singer for it to be a song. I am not outraged by this, just concerned and want it to stop. 

Let’s look at why you might hear now the use of the word ‘song’, referring to a symphony, a concerto, an overture, a sonata, even the song’s cousin, an aria. My memory is that these very distinctions were on tests I had to take in my college Music Appreciation classes. In fact, one of the fun ‘games’ to play listening to classical music on radio, is to determine by tuning-in mid-piece, ‘is this a concerto, a symphony or whatever?’. ‘Is it Baroque, Romantic, 20th Century, etc.?’ 

So how did it happen that any form of classical music can be called a ‘song’ these days?

As much I love and support iTunes, I think they are to blame. I remember when iTunes was launched in 2001 and offered ’99 cents a ‘song’’.  At the time, many of us in classical music wondered, ‘is a 3 movement symphony ‘one song’ or ‘three songs’? As it turns out, as you probably know, iTunes charges for every movement. But it is a ‘movement’ not a ‘song’!

Now the usage of this convenient word for downloading sales has spread. Spread like the use of “Xerox” when people mean ‘copy’. Distinctions and meanings are being lost and blurred and I’m against it.

Will you join me in my crusade to stem the tide of this disturbing trend?

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Comments [28]

Neil Schnall

"Rectum"? Damn near killed him!
(Seriously, that's precious! I love it!)

Jan. 06 2011 01:11 PM
Phyllis Sharpe

Mr. Meltzer, you are such a nudge! Why should you think less of and label people who do not have your experience.
This is an embarrassing confession but after going to a concert of the Rober Shaw Choral in Kansas City, when asked by my older brother and sister, home for thanksgiving, asked about the concert I told them I enjoyed the "SouthPacific Medley" and the 4th encore "Si down Servant", but their big number was "Mozart's Rectum".
My mother was going "Oh, Oh, Oh! My father was wiping his eyes. And I, being only 15, and Protestant, didn't know what I had said.
Life is definitely a learning experience, so be a teacher, not a complainer.

Jul. 30 2010 05:52 PM
Phyllis Sharpe

Going back to Shakespeare, a rose, a piece, a song, a tone poem, a concerto, a symphony, would sound the same based on its presentation. Again, this is a mountain out of a mole hill, much to do about words, not music.

Jul. 30 2010 05:05 PM

I totally agree with you, Elliott.
The habit is degrading the English language.
When I told my dentist that I was using an interstitial brush he jumped up and called his nurse to comment, and said: you mean a "Butler"? even though a butler is the chief manservant of a house.
That is the way it goes, unfortunately,

Jul. 06 2010 10:49 AM
Chris from Olympia, Wash.

Calling everything a "song" drives me crazy too--especially when another musician does it! I played with a semi-pro group and the conductor called everything a song. Webster's states quite clearly that a song is music created with the human voice--the poets have extended it to include the song of crickets, etc. I think we would all shudder if someone called a violin a trumpet, and I don't think we would hesitate to correct the error. Nor would we tolerate someone calling a tree a flower. Why then do we tolerate someone calling any piece of music a song.

Jun. 29 2010 02:38 PM
Phyllis Sharpe from Teaneck, NJ

As a little girl, I was frequently asked by kind older folks to sing a little piece, or play a little piece. I didn't mind singing but I hated playing the piano, and I also hated the idea that everything expected of me was little. (no doubt a good example of making mountains out of mole hills)
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak my little piece. I feel so much better now.

Jun. 28 2010 01:19 PM
Michael Meltzer

Alicia seems to have her finger on the pulse (shades of Desmond Morris).
Winston Churchill said, "I am always willing and eager to learn; I do not always enjoy being taught."

Jun. 25 2010 04:26 PM
Alicia from Knoxville, TN

I am a classical musician and lover of language who happens to live in the south. If I were to be offended every time I heard someone refer to a piece of music as a "song" or tell me they loved the "show" I played the other night, I would not have many friends, nor would I have an audience. I DO continue to refer to my performances as "concerts" and the works performed as "pieces". Mammals learn slowly and with much repetition!

Jun. 25 2010 02:04 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

"Song", "Opus", "Piece", "Work", "Aria", etc. Let's get over this. To paraphrase Shakespeare's famous analogy, "Music by any other name would sound as sweet".

Jun. 24 2010 08:39 AM
Neil Schnall

There is a strong basis for belief that "song" (vocal) is the anthropological basis of all our subsequent musical development, some very old recently-unearthed flute-like artifacts aside.
If Liszt transcribes a Schubert song for piano solo, is it no longer a song? (I've heard it played by pianists with no sense of bringing out a melody line so that it "sings", so perhaps so.) However, I doubt that Gershwin, when he so frequently played his song compositions as piano improvisations at parties and gatherings as well as recorded them phonographically and on piano rolls, would have referred to them as anything other than "songs". Jonathan Schwartz's program on WNYC is full of instrumental versions of songs (compositions composed as songs, with... you know... words) but arranged to be played without the words. "Now you has jazz!"
There's a danger of being overly pedantic about these distinctions. There's nothing wrong with understanding the differences, but we all start out from a state of ignorance.
People who do not honor the distinctions may simply be ignorant of them and might well be happy to learn what constitute the differences. They certainly shouldn't be made to feel as though they're not members of the elite club if they use innocenty inappropriate terminology.

Jun. 22 2010 10:46 AM
Annette Shandolow-Hassell from North Bergen

A "sawng", I repeat? What's that?

Their eyes glaze over, and they walk away.

I wonder why they ask, because I'm walking with the radio on and not always with earphones. ???

I like our "sawngs". Let's not change a note!

Jun. 21 2010 11:00 PM

That's an interesting habit. We can assume that people who are not as musically experienced might tend to use "song" instead of symphony, concerto, etc.

But then again, if you're listening to WQXR, I'd assume that you would have an idea of different forms of music. Perhaps the guilty listener was a classical music first-timer?

Jun. 21 2010 06:23 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

Certainly "song," in referring to Beethoven's 5th, seems too far off from relating to reality since songs are usually sung rather than played. But I wonder if you'd have also been upset if the person called it an "instrumental." Bobby McFerrin?

I'll take the opposite view (bypassing "song" for the moment). I'm often grateful to Jeff Spurgeon when he describes the difference between a sonata and cantata or explains what a bacchanal is. Same for a nocturne. What was the word for a boat "piece" (as generic a term as I can think of at the moment)? Polish dance? And on and on.

There are so many terms in so many different languages classical music almost rivals higher mathematics in esoteric terminology. "Rondo capriccioso?" What the F minor?.

Somehow I think there are people that listen to classical music and WQXR that haven't taken a "college Music Appreciation class." I don't think you want to require passing a test before being allowed to listen.

When I was a kid I used to play one of my father's classical albums. A Bach Brandenburg Concerto. I don't remember the specifics and they're not important, at least to the point and this thread's dialog. I liked what it sounded like. I had no concept of the structure, complexity, history or significance - and certainly not any particular terminology. I liked how it sounded.

I did know it wasn't a song though.

Oh, and this factor of explaining the details and doing so in an entertaining manner is obviously what was so special about George Jellinek and why WQXR has some of his prior broadcasts on Saturdays. From my view the same goes for Bill McGlaughlin, who demonstrates how music making, interpreting and performing are personal and visceral. It's also why I miss the David Dubal show, another talented individual who explained the details of musical beauty and virtuosity. No degree required.

Jun. 20 2010 08:09 PM
Joseph Jr from NYC

When did Johann Strauss Jr. become the II
He signed his works Jr

Jun. 20 2010 02:46 PM

I just ADORE Beethoven!.....( mostly his poems...very, very deep)

Jun. 20 2010 01:40 PM
Michael Meltzer

Harry's thinking is sound. There is a danger in the pendulum swinging so hard in the other direction that the "usage police" will take away the normal flexibility educated speakers like to enjoy. We like to say that we "heard" a given conductor, but we have to admit that we only really hear a conductor if he taps his foot, hums or makes noise turning pages.
What we need is for media people to keep a high standard and hope it rubs off on children and ESL speakers. Mr. Forrest and the WQXR announcers are among the best (I began to worry about this many years ago when Brent Musberger as a young CBS sportscaster gave us,"...and Connors stormed off the court muttering epitaphs.")
Keep up the good work!

Jun. 20 2010 01:00 AM
Harry from Brooklyn, NY

Understanding and appreciating music means recognizing the many different ways music can exist. Ideally, the different kinds of music (singing alone, playing a solo instrument, playing in a band, singing in a chorus, performing folk instruments, working with electronics, and on and on) should be learned over the course of one's childhood and adolescence. Like Elliott, I am a language maven and honor precision in speech and writing. The generic term is a "piece" of music. The same as French.

Still and all, I can see why the i-Tunes use of "song" -- chosen on the assumption that most buyers are looking from something from the Top 40 -- would influence the electronic world. Given the vast generational gap between traditional WQXR listeners and i-Tunes customers, we may just have to grin and bear it.

Jun. 19 2010 11:13 PM
grace speare-shapiro from Hartsdale, NY

I am with you all the way, "It's not a song"...
A song is a song. An aria is an aria. etc.
Let us learn to use proper language for what one describes.
By the way, you Mr. Elliott Forrest, are one of my favorite announcers. Continue in your ways and vocalize truth.

Jun. 19 2010 05:23 PM
Renate Perls from Greenwich Village

My thanks to Elliott Forrest regarding the word "song". It is little wonder that children do not know the difference between a song, a symphony or a concerto. The dumbing down of America is in full bloom everywhere, as well as in the area of music. Regardless of the latest idiotic mechanical gadgets, if teachers and parents have not yet learned what a song is as opposed to a concerto, how are they to teach the children? And nowadays, would the children even listen?
I gladly join your crusade to stem the tide of this disturbing trend.

Jun. 19 2010 12:52 PM
John Dixon from Old Greenwich, CT

Fortunately, I haven't encountered people who use "song" for work where nobody sings. They're violating a clear distinction that goes far back into prehistory.
I have often been annoyed, though, by a parallel usage error -- calling every 2D item in an art exhibit a "picture." It's not a picture if it doesn't depict anything. Pollack and Rothko didn't paint "pictures."

Jun. 19 2010 11:49 AM
June K

I'm still laughing over Michael Meltzer's wonderful comment reiterating Zappa's great definition of Rock journalism, and also Meltzer's comment that there is the world, there is the music world, and in this country they almost never overlap! Bravo. But, of course, there is that tiny, precious overlap consisting of people who cannot live without this music. When this music is introduced to students at the elementary level, students do open to it. We need programs directed specifically at our youth, if we want our world to change. years ago, my then 9 year old son and 3 of his friends had a pillow fight and made an unbelievable mess of foam rubber pieces and feathers all over my living room and foyer while I was in the kitchen. I asked the boys to call their parents to be picked up, because they couldn't stay for behaving that way. Within 2 minutes, those savvy boys assembled 4 chairs and their musical instruments, and were playing a Mozart quartet as their parents arrived!!!! We couldn't even be mad. It was beautiful. So at 9-10, these kids even knew about how music can soothe the savage breast!!!

Jun. 19 2010 11:31 AM
Gev from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

OH my. To add to the confusion, you're now playing The 1812 Overture, which is a pseudo-symphonic tone poem tailored for a festive occasion, and a through-composed amalgamation of hymns (songs), national anthems (more songs), at least one quick-step (a march at 120 beat or steps a minute and yet another song), bells, and the very-non-orchestral percussion piece called the cannon.

Jun. 19 2010 10:47 AM
rob Schachter from Indiana

Someone once said, 'The play's the thing" and I think he may have been on to something if I could borrow his phrase turn it on its head and offer to Elliot's cause.
Elliot, the peeve's the thing!


Jun. 19 2010 10:42 AM

It's not just in music (as you note), Elliott. I'll teach a play or an epic, and students typically refer to it as a novel. Keats knew the difference between an ode and a sonnet, and each form helped determine the content. However, I just published (as editor) a book entitled Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration. Note in the subtitle the word *stories* - which is to be taken generically, since the book includes short fiction, reflective essays, and some poems. Because it would be okay to say that the poem by so-and-so tells a wonderful story.

Jun. 19 2010 10:12 AM
Serge Ledan from Queens, NY

What else is new nowadays, in this age of rampant mediocrity and leveling to the lowest common denominator!! Calling a classical piece a song is not only distasteful but reflects lack of culture, bad taste, and probably bad instincts in general.

Jun. 19 2010 09:50 AM
Michael Meltzer

It's fun to quote Frank Zappa, who was defining Rock Journalism, but his definition really has broader application:
"People who can't talk, being interviewed by people who can't write, for people who can't read."

Jun. 19 2010 08:56 AM
Nancy Wilken from New York

Just hearing you speak of a "song" has absolutely ruined my AM listening as I'm so irritated about the state of the language (where is William Safire?). As Michael stated > me, there is nothing we can do about it as they'll do it anyway. (Used to fiorresght w/young people & was backed up by Columbia English professor attempting to teach English majors in a English poetry class (unable to write & they needed a teachers assist to write their papers so they could get the "A" they demanded--MY PEEVE then was, the ending of every sentence w/"you know"! You "know what", I'd ask, and, what did they answer, "you know"! So, somehow, I and we have to surrender & I have to learn to control my temper--TX for allowing listeners to "share" (another peeve).

Jun. 19 2010 08:16 AM
Michael Meltzer

Unfortunately, it's not a new story. For some time, salespeople being trained for telemarketing concert subscriptions have had to be told, "You will be talking to seasoned concertgoers. Don't ever call a concert, 'a show,' or you'll lose them."
They do it anyway. They don't know, they've usually never been to a concert.
It seems as thought there is the world, and there is the music world, and in this country they almost never overlap.

Jun. 19 2010 08:01 AM

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