A song is an artistic form of expression based on sound, with distinct pitches, pattern and form, generally considered a complete work, whether musically or lyrically. It can be wordless or with words. Written words created specifically for music or for which music is specifically created, are called lyrics. If poetry, a pre-existing poem is set to composed music, that is an art song. Songs that are sung on repeated pitches without distinct contours and patterns that rise and fall are called chants. Chants may be slightly or highly ornamented. Songs may be sung by one singer or more than one, by a singer with background singers who accompany with minor parts, or by a group. Songs composed for personal use, for casual group activities, in simple style, are referred to as folk songs. Songs that are composed for professional entertainers are called popular songs, in that they do not require an education to necessarily appreciate, and that they have broad appeal to many people. These songs are composed with the intent to earn money by professional composers and lyricists. Art songs are composed by trained classical composers for concert performance. Songs may also appear in plays, musical plays, stage shows of any form, and within operas. 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. 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.).
Art songs are songs created for performance by classical artists, usually with accompaniment, although they can be sung solo. Art songs require strong vocal technique, understanding of language, diction and poetry for interpretation. Though such singers may also perform popular or folk songs on their programs, these characteristics and the use of poetry are what distinguish art songs from popular songs. Art songs are a tradition from most European countries, and now other countries with classical music traditions. 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. The accompaniment of European art songs is considered as an important part of the composition. Some art songs are so revered that they take on characteristics of national identification.
Art songs emerge from the tradition of singing love songs of someone present or someone ideal or imaginary. They also come from religious songs. The troubadours and bards of Europe began the documented tradition of romantic songs, continued by the Elizabethan lutenists. Some of the earliest art songs are found in the music of Henry Purcell. The tradition of the romance, a love song with a flowing accompaniment, often in triple meter, entered opera in the 19th century, and spread from there throughout Europe. It spread into popular song and became one of the underpinnings of Popular Songs. While a romance generally has a simple accompaniment, art songs tend to have complicated, sophisticated accompaniments that underpin, embellish, illustrate or provide contrast to the voice. Sometimes it is the accompaniment that has the melody, while the voice sings a more dramatic part.
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 may eventually become folk songs by the same process of detachment from its source. Folk songs are more-or-less in the public domain by definition, though there are many folk song entertainers who publish and record copyrighted original material. This tradition led also to the singer-songwriter style of performing, where an artist has written confessional poetry or personal statements and sings them set to music, most often a guitar.
Genres of popular songs are many, including torch songs, ballads, novelty songs, anthems, rock songs, blues, soul, and other commercial genres. Folk songs include ballads, lullabyes, plaints, love songs, mourning songs, dance songs, work songs, ritual songs, and many more.
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- 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.
- Marcello Sorce Keller (1984), "The Problem of Classification in Folksong Research: a Short History", Folklore, XCV, no. 1, 100- 104.