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(sông, sŏng) pronunciation
  1. Music.
    1. A brief composition written or adapted for singing.
    2. The act or art of singing: broke into song.
  2. A distinctive or characteristic sound made by an animal, such as a bird or an insect.
    1. Poetry; verse.
    2. A lyric poem or ballad.

for a song Informal.

  1. At a low price: bought the antique tray for a song.

[Middle English, from Old English sang.]

Short and usually simple piece of music for voice, with or without instrumental accompaniment. Folk songstraditional songs without a known composer transmitted orally rather than in written formhave existed for millennia but have left few traces in ancient sources. Virtually all known preliterate societies have a repertory of songs. Folk songs often accompany religious ceremonies, dancing, labour, or courting; they may tell stories or express emotions; the music follows obvious conventions and is often repetitive. Songs written by a particular composer or poet generally are more sophisticated and are not attached to activities. In the West the continuous tradition of secular art songs began with the troubadours, trouvres, and minnesingers of the 12th13th centuries. Polyphonic songs, originating in the motet, began to appear in the 13th century. Composers of the 14th century produced a great body of polyphonic songs in the formes fixes. Later the Italian madrigal became the most distinguished genre. Notated accompaniments to solo songs appeared in the 16th century. The Romantic movement made the 19th century a golden age for the art song, notably the German lied. In the 20th century the popular song displaced the more cultivated art song, and popular music is today synonymous with popular song.

For more information on song, visit

Idioms beginning with song:
song and dance

In addition to the idiom beginning with song, also see for a song; swan song.

Until the late 19th century, it was generally agreed within the musical establishment that England, alone amongst the countries which comprise the British Isles, possessed no traditional folk-song or music. The campaign to refute this misconception gathered pace as the turn of the century approached, culminating in the formation of the Folk-Song Society in 1898, and the great collecting boom of the Edwardian period, led by enthusiasts such as Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams (see also song revival). As the collectors began reporting, and publishing, thousands of finds, music students and composers turned eagerly to them for material and folk-song became an overnight craze, recycled into numerous classical pieces.

The Edwardian collectors had little problem recognizing the genuine article. For them, folk-songs were old and quaint, to be found almost exclusively in the mouths of the elderly rural poor, who were claimed to be the remnants of an unlettered, culturally conservative, and musically uncreative peasantry. They also took it as read that the conditions for the perpetuation of genuine folk-songs had been eroded during the 19th century by railway travel, universal education, urbanization, and the rise of commercial music in the form of the music hall, and that they were involved in a last-ditch rescue operation. Sharp declared in 1907 that ‘in less than a decade, English folk singing will be extinct’ (Sharp, 1907: 130), and commented: ‘I have learned that it is, as a rule, only waste of time to call upon singers under the age of sixty. Their songs are nearly all modern; if, by chance, they happen to sing an old one, it is so infected with the modern spirit that it is hardly worth the gathering’ (p. 150).

Sharp attempted the only real definition of the subject for his generation. His collecting and writing perpetuated the rural bias and the idea of ‘unlettered peasant’ as the prime source, but he also provided a more theoretical framework by identifying key elements fundamental to the genre, which have remained central to later attempts to define folklore. He laid particular stress on Continuity, Selection, and Variation. Continuity ensures that some songs are passed on from singer to singer, generation to generation, and thus exist long enough to become ‘traditional’. Selection is the process by which only those items which satisfy the community's criteria for judging a good song survive, while those which do not are forgotten. As songs are passed informally from singer to singer, changes occur, and this variation makes development of the song possible, while selection again ensures that only positive changes will survive. Sharp's debt to evolutionary theories is clear, and his writings underpin his fundamental belief that because folk-songs have resulted from ages of unconscious selection and moulding by English communities, relatively untainted by passing fashion and foreign models, they necessarily embody the musical taste, even the musical soul, of the English nation:’ … the unconscious output of the human mind, whatever else it may be, is always real and sincere … The music of the common people must always, therefore, be genuine and true’ (p. 44). Similar sentiments underlay Vaughan Williams's notions of ‘National Music’.

By concentrating on the process of transmission rather than the item itself, Sharp side-stepped the problem of origins. By his definition, songs could originate from any source, and only became ‘folk-songs' after being submitted to the continuity/selection/variation process, but only if a further condition—the lack of access to an authoritative original—is satisfied. Variation is artificially hampered if singers are able to check their performances against the original form of a song, as happens when they possess a printed score or even a modern sound recording. Thus, the notion of an unbroken ‘oral’ tradition was mooted as a necessary basis for genuine folk-song. The status of oral transmission, however, was itself controversial. Antiquarians and literary scholars such as William Chappell and F. J. Child viewed the variations brought about by oral transmission as ‘corruptions’, and the process as largely degenerative, while for Sharp's theory to function, the oral tradition needed to be largely beneficial, or at the very least neutral.

It is easy to criticize Sharp's attempts at definition and to challenge his assumptions. His description of ‘the folk’, for example, as ‘Those whose mental development has been due not to any formal system of training or education, but solely to environment, communal association, and direct contact with the ups and downs of life’ (p. 4) is condescending and hardly describes the English rural working class of the time, and he systematically downplays the creative role played by successive performers, while overstating the humble status of his informants. The idea that English people have had a purely oral tradition at any time in the last three or four hundred years is clearly wishful thinking, as almost since the invention of printing broadside and other printed versions of songs have been available. Nevertheless, Sharp and his contemporaries were almost exclusively interested in the tunes as opposed the texts of the songs, precisely because a much stronger case could be made for the existence of a long-standing ‘oral’ tradition in the musical sphere, and the tunes were thus deemed to be much ‘purer’ than the words. Nevertheless, the notion that the rural poor were somehow immune to influence by other forms of music is also untenable.

Sharp's writings were tremendously influential, and, filtered through the work of Maud Karpeles, formed the basis of the definition which the International Folk Music Council (founded 1947) adopted at their 1955 Congress in São Paulo:

Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are: (i) continuity that links the present with the past; (ii) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group; and (iii) selection by the community which determines the form or forms in which the music survives. The term can be applied to music that has been evolved from rudimentary beginnings by a community uninfluenced by popular and art music and it can likewise be applied to music which has originated with an individual composer and has subsequently been absorbed into the unwritten living tradition of a community. The term does not cover composed popular music that has been taken over ready-made by a community and remains unchanged, for it is the re-fashioning and recreation of the music by the community that gives it its folk character. (Journal of the International Folk Music Council 7 (1955), 23)

Virtually every element of the Sharp/IFMC definition has been questioned by later writers, although not replaced by any other workable solution, and since the late 1970s it has been common for scholars to doubt the very existence of a separate genre of ‘folk-song’ (see, for example, Harker, 1985). A further criticism of the earlier collectors is that because of their restricted definition of folk-song they ignored a large part of singers' repertoires, leaving us with only partial knowledge of the singing practices of the time. But as documentation of the full singing picture of the time was not in their brief, and they made no secret of their restricted area of interest, their omissions may be regrettable from our present perspective, but not blameworthy.

The collecting boom had petered out by the First World War, and there was little collecting activity in the 1920s and 1930s, apart from by individuals such as Alfred Williams and James Madison Carpenter. By their definition, Sharp's contemporaries were correct about the demise of traditional singing, although they were certainly over-pessimistic on the speed of its decline. Post-Second World War collecting forays by the BBC/EFDSS and other collectors found plenty of songs still known, and many still being sung regularly in homes, pubs, and clubs all over the country, but this was probably the last generation which would be able to provide this sort of material as part of their everyday lives rather than as conscious revival of the past.

As with most folklore genres, the age of folk-song is often overestimated. A small proportion of the folk-song repertoire can be shown to have been current in the 17th century, and most of these are ballads included in F. J. Child's collection. The bulk of the songs collected at the turn of the 19th century, however, could not claim to be older than 100 years, as they had originated in a variety of popular entertainment sources of the late 18th and 19th centuries: pleasure gardens, song and supper rooms, operas, other stage shows and interludes, music hall, and, most important of all, the printed broadsides, chapbooks, and songsters. Nevertheless, despite decades of intensive research, the authors of most songs in the traditional repertoire remain anonymous.

The folk-song repertoire can be categorized in many ways. From the subject point of view, songs about love, or the relationship between the sexes, comprise the vast majority, but range from the wistful to the robust, from the gentle romantic to the comic treatment of aldultery. But there were plenty of other topics—battle and adventures at sea, including press-gangs and pirates, poachers, farm life, the pleasures (and occasionally miseries) of drink, highwaymen and other criminals, and, in the older narrative ballads, the exploits of Robin Hood, lords and ladies, kings and queens. They can be narrative, lyrical, humorous, pathetic, sentimental, callous, or coarse. The social mores of Victorian and Edwardian England severely constrained what the collectors noted and even more what they published, and, given their relative lack of concern for the texts, they had few qualms about ‘softening’ some of the sentiments involved. In addition, many singers censored items which they thought unsuitable for visiting gentlemen or ladies, and this successive filtering process ensured that a further distorted view of the total repertoire was given. There is no doubt that a range of sexually explicit songs existed, although given the same social mores they would most likely be confined to all-male situations such as army barracks or the sports locker room. Some broadsides overstepped the line between risqué and crude. But England had no collector who made a point of noting everything, including the bawdy. It has been claimed that bawdy song has retained a more purely oral tradition precisely because of this problem of publishing, and this is true to a certain extent. Some books of bawdy songs were actually published, but they tended to be collectors' items, printed abroad, and there is also evidence that bawdy songs circulated in typescript and manuscript form. From the 1960s onwards, however, books and records of ‘rugby songs' have been widely available, which have standardized the repertoire. England has not had much of a tradition of work songs (i.e. songs to accompany work as opposed to songs about work), apart from a vigorous tradition of sea shanties. After the Second World War when politically active enthusiasts such as A. L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl started taking an interest, the song traditions of miners, weavers, and other industrial workers began to be researched. Traditions of song-making and singing were identified in many areas, and a characteristic of these traditions was that many of the songs had been written by identifiable local authors.

It is almost a cliché to claim that people do not sing as they used to, but all the evidence confirms this as an accurate assessment of the decline of vernacular song. Home-grown music of all kinds has been largely swamped by the commercial music industry, and the spread of the radio and gramophone has dramatically changed the way that ordinary people view musical performance. This is not to argue that in the past all singing was ‘folk singing’, but many popular songs were at least singable by non-professionals, while few modern popular songs are suited to amateur unaccompanied performance, and as performance contexts have dwindled almost to the point of extinction, so has the habit of singing. Ironically, we nowadays have far more day-to-day access to music than any previous generation, but it is now primarily in the role of listener rather than participant. By most definitions, folk-song in England is all but dead, although a case could be made for one or two exceptions, such as children's rhymes and songs, which are still largely passed on informally, bawdy songs, carolsinging, and other informal genres such as football-crowd chants.

As indicated, the Edwardian collectors were primarily interested in tunes rather than texts. Whereas previous antiquarians such as Chappell had ‘corrected’ tunes to fit with established musical practice of the time, the folk-song collectors were delighted to find that many traditional tunes used a different tonal basis than the standard major/minor forms of the period; namely, the so-called ‘church modes’, such as the Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian. To the modern ear, their main characteristic is that certain notes are consistently sharpened or flattened when compared to a conventional major scale. Such modal idioms had not otherwise been in regular use since the religious plain-chants of the 16th century, and were thus held by some to be an important marker of the antiquity of traditional music. Sharp and his successors classified the tunes according to modal theory, but such systematization underestimated the fluidity of traditional tonality and modern scholarship takes a less prescriptive approach. An important exception was Percy Grainger whose thinking on tonality was well ahead of its time (see JFSS 3 (1908), 147-242). It must also be stressed that their interest in modal tunes led the collectors to exaggerate their numerical importance, and a majority of the songs noted were in the standard major.


The full bibliography list is available here.

  • Cecil Sharp, English Folk Song: Some Conclusions (1907)
  • Dave Harker, Fakesong: The Manufacture of British Folksong, 1700 to the Present Day (1985)
  • A. L. Lloyd, Folk Song in England (1967)
  • Iolo A. Williams, English Folk-Song and Dance (1935).
  • Gammon, 1980
  • B. H. Bronson, The Ballad as Song (1969)
  • Roger D. Abrahams and George Foss, Anglo-American Folk-song Style (1968)
<i>Casablanca</i>, the Movie  
Casablanca, the Movie
"You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh; the fundamental things apply, as time goes by." The song was written by Herman Hupfeld in 1931, for a musical called Everybody's Welcome, and largely forgotten. Writer Murray Burnett incorporated the song into a play he wrote with Joan Alison, Everybody Comes to Rick's. When they couldn't get the play produced, they sold it to Warner Brothers, who passed it on to their scriptwriters, Howard Koch and Julius and Philip Epstein; they turned it into the movie, Casablanca. On this date in 1942, Casablanca premiered in New York. And "As Time Goes By" remains one of the world's most recognized songs.

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From our Archives: Today's Highlights, November 26, 2007

song, relatively brief, simple vocal composition, usually a setting of a poetic text, often strophic, for accompanied solo voice. The song literature of Western music embodies two broad classifications-folk song and art song.

Apart from the recently discovered cuneiform tablet containing a song from the Middle East of the 2d millennium B.C., now thought to be the oldest notated music known, and apart from ancient Greek song (see Greek music), the manuscripts of which are lost, the first outstanding examples of art song before the baroque period are those of the troubadours, trouvères, minnesingers, and meistersingers. The refined, lyrical air de cour of late 16th-century France, for one or more voices with lute accompaniment, provided the inspiration for the ayre composed by the early 17th-century English lutenists, among whom were John Dowland, Thomas Campion, and Thomas Morley.

The Italians centered their principal attention upon the development of the opera. The principle of accompanied monody, which originated in Italy and is inseparable from the early development of opera, also marked the beginning of modern accompanied song, although the speech rhythms of recitative and the elaborateness of most opera arias are usually thought of as being beyond the realm of song. A direct influence is shown in the German lied of the 17th cent., a monodic song with a basso continuo accompaniment. Outstanding among earlier examples are the Arien of Heinrich Albert (1604-51) and those of Adam Krieger (1634-66).

The German romantic lieder of the 19th cent., in which the vocal line and the piano accompaniment are of equal musical significance, are considered to be among the finest of all art songs. The lied style was articulated by Schubert and developed further by Schumann, Brahms, and Hugo Wolf. Among the poets whose lyrics they used were Goethe, Chamisso, Eichendorff, Rückert, Wilhelm Müller, Heine, and Mörike. Among modern German songs those of Hindemith and of Schoenberg are outstanding. Some of these require the technique of Sprechstimme, a pitched declamation that is a hybrid of song and speech.

In France a renewed interest in song composition began in the 19th cent. with Berlioz and was continued in the works of Franck, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, and Poulenc. The foremost Russian composers of the genre include Glinka, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Gretchaninov, and Glière. The dramatic songs of Moussorgsky are particularly significant. In the United States the songs of Stephen Foster had such national appeal as to become incorporated into the folk tradition. Charles Ives brought a striking originality to the modern American art song.

See ballad; carol; chantey; hymn; plainsong; rock music; and spiritual. See also birdsong.


See P. Warlock, The English Ayre (1926); E. Schumann, German Song (1948); S. Kagen, Music for the Voice (1949); D. Ivey, Song: Anatomy, Imagery, and Styles (1970); D. Stevens, ed., A History of Song (1960, rev. 1970); H. T. Finck, Songs and Song Writers (1900, repr. 1973); J. Hall, Art Song (1974); M. Booth, The Experience of Songs (1981); S. S. Prawer, The Penguin Book of Lieder (1987); R. Lissauer, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1991, rev. ed. 1996).

Random House Word Menu:

categories related to 'song'

Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier
For a list of words related to song, see:

This article is about the musical composition (with vocals). For other uses, see Song (disambiguation).

In music, a song is a composition for voice performed by singing or alongside musical instruments. A choral or vocal song may be accompanied by musical instruments, or it may be unaccompanied, as in the case of a cappella songs. The lyrics (words) of songs are typically of a poetic, rhyming nature, though they may be religious verses or free prose.

A song may be for a solo singer, a duet, trio, or larger ensemble involving more voices, although the term is generally not used for large vocal forms including opera and oratorio.[1] Songs with more than one voice to a part are considered choral works. Songs can be broadly divided into many different forms, depending on the criteria used. One division is between "art songs", "pop songs", and "folk songs". Other common methods of classification are by purpose (sacred vs secular), by style (dance, ballad, Lied, etc.), or by time of origin (Renaissance, Contemporary, etc.).

Cultural types[edit]

Art songs[edit]

Main article: Art song

Art songs are songs created for performance in their own right, 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 and composer and require voice training for acceptable performance. German-speaking communities use the term art song ("Kunstlied") to distinguish so-called "serious" compositions from folk song ("Volkslied"). The lyrics are often written by a poet or 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 (romancy), German (Lieder), Italian (canzoni), French (mélodies), Scandinavian (sånger), Portuguese (canções), Spanish (canciones). There are also highly regarded British and American art songs in the English language. Cultures outside of Europe that have a classical music tradition, such as India, may or may not feature art songs.The accompaniment of European art songs is considered as an important part of the composition.

The art song of the period in which they originally flowered 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 or salon 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 composers. These composers set poems in their native language. Many works were inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Heinrich Heine. 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.[2]

Folk songs[edit]

Main article: Folk music

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 culture.

Popular songs[edit]

Modern popular songs are typically distributed as recordings and are played on the radio, though all other mass media that have audio capabilities are involved. Their relative popularity is inferred from commercially significant sales of recordings, ratings of stations and networks that play them, and ticket sales for concerts by the recording artists. A popular song can become a modern folk song when members of the public who learn to sing it from the recorded version teach their version to others. Songs that are popular may be called pop songs for short, although pop songs and/or pop music may instead be considered a more commercially popular genre of popular music as a whole.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Luise Eitel Peake. 1980. "Song". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, sixth edition, 20 vols., edited by Stanley Sadie, Vol. 17: 510-523. London: Macmillan Publishers; New York: Grove's Dictionaries. ISBN 1-56159-174-2.
  2. ^ Kamien, Roger (August 1, 1997). Music: An Appreciation (3rd edition ed.). McGraw-Hill. pp. 217–18. ISBN 0-07-290200-0. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Marcello Sorce Keller (1984), "The Problem of Classification in Folksong Research: a Short History", Folklore, XCV, no. 1, 100- 104.


Dansk (Danish)
n. - sang, vise, kvad


  • going for a song    blive solgt for en slik
  • on song    i sang
  • song and dance    stort nummer, stor ståhej
  • song bird    sangfugl
  • song thrush    sangdrossel

Nederlands (Dutch)
lied, wijsje, compositie, zang, gezang, muziek

Français (French)
n. - (Mus) chanson, chant, (Littérat) poème


  • for a song    pour rien
  • on song    (GB) être en forme
  • song and dance    (Théât) chanson dansée, (US) (resservir) toujours les mêmes excuses à qn, (GB) (faire) toute une histoire de qch
  • song bird    oiseau-chanteur
  • song thrush    grive musicienne

Deutsch (German)
n. - Lied, Song, Gesang


  • for a song    für ein Apfel und ein Ei verkauft werden, sehr billig
  • on song    in Spitzenform sein
  • song and dance    viel Trara
  • song bird    Singvogel
  • song thrush    Singdrossel

Ελληνική (Greek)
n. - τραγούδι, άσμα, ωδή


  • going for a song    που πουλιέται πάμφθηνα
  • on song    (Βρετ., καθομ.) (που λειτουργεί κ.λπ.) στην εντέλεια
  • song and dance    μουσικοχορευτική εκδήλωση, φασαρία, αναταραχή
  • song bird    ωδικό πτηνό
  • song thrush    (ορνιθ.) κίχλη η μελωδική (κν. τσίχλα)

Italiano (Italian)
canzone, aria, canto


  • going for a song    in vendita per quattro soldi
  • on song    perfetto
  • song and dance    trambusto
  • song bird    uccello canoro, usignolo

Português (Portuguese)
n. - canção (f), cantiga (f), verso (m)


  • going for a song    comprar elefantes brancos, vendido por quase nada
  • on song    desempenhar com eficiência máxima (coloq.)
  • song and dance    fazer confusão
  • song bird    ave canora

Русский (Russian)
песня, пение, песнь


  • going for a song    идти за бесценок
  • on song    "в ударе" (о спортсменах)
  • song and dance    пустая болтовня, ерунда, свистопляска
  • song bird    певчая птица

Español (Spanish)
n. - canción, tonadilla, tonada, cántico, canto


  • for a song    a un precio muy bajo
  • on song    que actúa extraordinariamente bien
  • song and dance    el grito en el cielo, alharaca
  • song bird    pájaro cantor
  • song thrush    malvía, petirrojo

Svenska (Swedish)
n. - sång, visa

中文(简体)(Chinese (Simplified))
歌, 歌曲, 唱, 歌唱, 诗歌, 歌谣, 鸣声


  • going for a song    非常便宜地
  • on song    鼓足尽头, 竭尽全力
  • song and dance    歌舞, 唠叨, 花言巧语
  • song bird    鸣禽, 女歌手, 鸣鸟
  • song thrush    歌鸠

中文(繁體)(Chinese (Traditional))
n. - 歌, 歌曲, 唱, 歌唱, 詩歌, 歌謠, 鳴聲


  • going for a song    非常便宜地
  • on song    鼓足盡頭, 竭盡全力
  • song and dance    歌舞, 嘮叨, 花言巧語
  • song bird    鳴禽, 女歌手, 鳴鳥
  • song thrush    歌鳩

한국어 (Korean)
n. - 노래, 시, (벌레 등의) 울음 소리

日本語 (Japanese)
n. - 歌, 歌うこと, 歌唱, さえずり, 鳴き声, 詩, せせらぎ, 立てる音


  • on song    実に快調に
  • song and dance    歌と踊り, 真偽の疑わしい話
  • song bird    鳴き鳥, 女性歌手
  • song thrush    ウタツグミ

العربيه (Arabic)
‏(الاسم) أغنيه, شعر‏

עברית (Hebrew)
n. - ‮שיר, שירה, מנגינה, קולות ציפורים וחרקים‬

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