Words and Music 12: What is a Song?

We read all the time that our society is ‘more divided than ever’.  I don’t need to reference that – it’s a common trope, and not just in the UK but in the USA and across the world.  The inequalities and racial tensions are there for everyone to see.

But more divided?  I doubt that.  Our great castles and cathedrals were not built to house the poor, and even within living memory violent civil wars and extreme racial segregation should give us pause for thought.  I certainly grew up in a divided society. When I was a teenager in London there were signs outside hotels in Paddington which read: No Blacks, No Irish.  You went to a grammar school or a secondary-modern.  You liked the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. I don’t mean to trivialise world politics, but I’m not going to solve any global issues here.  I just want to talk about music.  Music – often held up as the art which, above all others, brings people together; a universal language.  Music reflects society and thus manifests the same divisions. In Music, though, diversity is generally celebrated.  In Music, I would say, we are less divided than ever.

All the same, there are a few potential ‘red lines’.  The classical/popular divide is one. For many people life is defined by music; they listen to music all the time; they are knowledgeable and critical; but their music is – broadly – popular music.  Their familiarity with ‘classical’ music is limited and they have no interest in expanding it.  There are rather fewer people for whom music means Classical music and who have no interest in popular music. There must be some, but I don’t think I know of any.  As for Jazz, don’t get me started.  Jazz takes flak from both sides; but jazz musicians are so laid back they don’t even notice.

As a composer I have always been interested, like many others, in ways of blurring the lines between classical and pop, and between East and West.  There’s no political agenda here, simply a desire not to compartmentalise my musical interests more than I need to.  In his 1973 essay Postscript to a brief study of Balinese and African music, Steve Reich asks the question: if a composer is absorbed in the music of another culture what should they do about it?  Should the composer try to imitate the other music?  Should they learn to play and become a part of the other culture?  Or should they – Reich’s solution – absorb the influence of the other culture and take that influence into their own writing?  That solution worked for Reich and seems to work for me, although in my Japanese influenced pieces the accusation of cultural misappropriation is constantly lurking above my head.   In the case of appropriation from popular music however, the situation is quite different for me.  My first musical experiences, first musical performances and first musical compositions were pop songs.  I wrote dozens of songs before my first tentative effort at writing something on paper for a trio of flute, clarinet and oboe (I played the clarinet).  All the time I was learning to compose – at the London College of Music as a teenager, and later at the University of York – I was writing and recording songs with my guitar.   I could argue that popular music was my culture, and that Classical music was something I appropriated (and became quite good at).   This is true for many composers, I know.   I also know that many composers reading this will be feeling their irritation mounting, because nowadays we are all postmodern and non-classical and we play in clubs and shopping malls, and there’s no problem.  Good. I was very grateful to Andrew Hugill recently, when he posted a clip of the late Pierre Henry DJ-ing outside the Pompidou Centre.  The music seemed to be his customary electronic sweeps and sound masses, but mixed above thumping drum and bass. A large crowd of people was bouncing around appreciatively.  Good.   But this is papering over the cracks.  There are still two cultures, and they don’t easily combine.   I think in our hearts we all know that.

What happens when you ask a composer the question “What is a Song?”  That’s what Mary Weigold did in 1991 when she put together the Mary Weigold Songbook with the Composers Ensemble (NMC D003). A number of composers were asked to write a 3 minute song for soprano voice and an ensemble consisting of 2 clarinets, viola, cello and double bass.  The line-up was unusual but purposeful: it suggests warmth and lyricism, and there’s no keyboard.  The response from composers was very interesting.  With composers as diverse as Harrison Birtwistle, Judith Weir, Dominic Muldowney and Howard Skempton the pieces which materialized were all very different in their musical language.  Birtwistle’s was – well, you know – Birtwistly.  Weir’s piece was a short narrative ballad.  Muldowney’s was a Brecht setting modelled on Eisler.  Skempton’s was an achingly beautiful lament.  Composers were so taken with Mary’s proposal that some wrote more songs for this combination, and Mary approached more composers (including me).   In 2009 NMC tried the same trick, inviting 100 composers (including me) to write a 3 minute song for the NMC Songbook (NMC D150) – this time with a stipulation that it should have something to do with British Culture.  For the NMC project composers were offered a choice of voice (soprano, mezzo, tenor, bass) and of instrumentation (either solo piano, or harp, or guitar, or harpsichord, or percussion).  With so many more composers and possible permutations of scoring the range of songs which resulted was extraordinary.

I regularly use both these collections (Composers Ensemble and NMC Songbook) in teaching, asking the question first: What is a Song?  Invariably students offer me definitions like ‘it’s a piece of music for voice’ and include in their list of examples plainchant, cantatas and opera. Having explained that ‘song’ and ‘a song’ are different, (and that birdsong and whale song also belong to another discussion), we get down to talking about folk songs, work songs, pop songs and art songs.  We then listen to a random selection of songs from the NMC songbook and tease out the differences in approach taken by their composers.  The songs fall broadly into three categories.   Most are what might be described as conventional art songs.  The language is that of late 20th century concert music, mostly non-tonal.  They are designed to be addressed to an audience familiar with the concert hall and the contemporary song recital.  The accompanying instrument plays a substantial role, sometimes equal to that of the singer.  The second, smaller category comprises deliberately simple songs, of the kind that any listener would recognise: simple melodic line, simple harmony, a verse structure, uncomplicated accompaniment.  The third category comprises miniature dramatic pieces, or mini-cantatas.  The composer has taken the opportunity to compose for voice and instrument (or two voices), producing a piece which differs from their regular concert music only in its brevity.  There is no concession to the idea of ‘a song’ at all, although composed to be part of a song book.   There can be no complaints about this:  the joy of the NMC Songbook is precisely its celebration of diversity.

I keep coming back, though, to the importance of song. In some way it seems to define the difference between the classical (or learned) and the popular (or vernacular).  Vernacular songs define our lives: songs we share, songs we use, songs we carry with us.  They chart social change in a way that classical music, including art songs, seems less able to do. They speak to life as it is, while classical music seems to strive for an ideal detached from the day to day.  Perhaps that’s why attempts to classicalize popular music (chamber choir sings Cole Porter, string quartet plays Beatles songs etc) generally fail to match the power of the songs they mean to pay tribute to.  My favourite example of this is in choir renditions of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, where often the essential rhymes of ‘do ya’, ‘knew ya’ etc are lost because a chamber choir has to sing ‘do you’ and ‘knew you’ so as not to seem common. Actually the game is up before it starts in this instance, because although the hymn-like chorus is memorable and uplifting, the verse lyrics are pretty cynical and the ‘Hallelujah’ is somewhat ironic.  That doesn’t seem to matter, though, because the tune is so good, and the words get lost in the beauty of the vocal harmony.  But not when Leonard Cohen sings it.  His reference to the ‘baffled’ King David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba is a reminder of the ethical paradoxes found in the Book of Psalms.  The line “well, maybe there’s a god above/ but all I ever learned from love/ was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you” is also one which sits uncomfortably in the mouths of church choirs, which is probably why that verse is often omitted (actually there are several versions of the song).    Unfortunately for me, Cohen himself decided to sing ‘do you’ instead of ‘do ya’ in some of his later renditions of the song, which I find inexplicable. Perhaps he felt his song had earned ‘classical’ status?  Somehow, though, this kind of song performed by choir or classical singer, doesn’t achieve the status of ‘art song’.  It remains (in this case) Leonard Cohen’s ballad ‘Hallelujah’; just as a trumpet version of ‘Oh Mein Papa’ remains a version of the song, not a piece for trumpet.  What happens when the music travels the other way (from concert hall to pop charts) is more complicated.  Leaving aside party pieces like disco versions of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the transition from concert repertoire to pop charts only seems to take hold when the concert piece in question features a very strong tune which catches the imagination – such as the songs ‘This is my beloved’ and ‘Stranger in Paradise’, which appeared in the 1953 musical Kismet, but were lifted wholesale (the music anyway) from a quartet and opera by Borodin composed some 60 years earlier.

No, the divide between classical (learned) and popular (vernacular) is real.   Is it possible for a composer to embrace both?








11 responses to “Words and Music 12: What is a Song?”

  1. Bill Brooks Avatar
    Bill Brooks

    Excellent, and of course I’m in accord about the popular/classical divide. But I don’t agree that music is _less_ divided than society in general. The essential factor that motivates division — the distribution of wealth — is just as horrific in music as in any other field (and perhaps more so than some). Take away all income over, say, £100K, and redistribute it for social good, and maybe, just maybe, divisions will begin to dissolve. And don’t exclude opera singers, conductors, pop stars, and film composers. In fact, for them make the income limit £50K — after all, don’t they tell us constantly that music is its own reward?

  2. Roger Marsh Avatar
    Roger Marsh

    Thanks Bill. When I talk about Music being less divided I am not talking about its commercial aspects or the way music is practised. I mean that it’s less divided in that we are less inclined to be concerned about high-brow v low-brow, Eastern or Western – the barriers to understanding have lowered; we can more readily appreciate the music of the other. Having said that Jean Charles Francois assured me last month that in France no-one knows about Vaughan Williams. Vive l’entente cordiale, eh?

  3. John Potter Avatar
    John Potter

    I was struck by many parallels between what Bill Bruford was saying about rock/jazz drummers and classical music performance (I’ve spent a lot of my life somewhere in between his middle two categories but have also experienced both ends). I’m beginning to think that ‘classical’ and ‘pop’ might actually be the same thing. They’re just perceived differently by different people. I once played one of Sterndale Bennet’s German songs to a project group without telling them what it was. They thought it was a pretty decent piece of Mendelssohn. I played them the same song in its English version the following week, again anonymously. They had no idea of the composer as it was trite Victoria rubbish.

  4. Roger Marsh Avatar
    Roger Marsh

    I had some difficulty with Bill Bruford, I have to confess. In as much as the theory of creativity interests me at all, I agreed with Liz that the process or endeavour is more important than an assessment of whether the act of creation is original or not. Margaret Boden’s ‘Personal’ v ‘Historical’ creativity is interesting in that regard. The creativity can be original for you but not to the rest of the world. And the question she poses is: if it turned out that someone had already discovered the theory of relativity before Einstein – only he didn’t know that – would his creativity then become simply ‘personal’ creativity.

  5. John Potter Avatar
    John Potter

    Yes, but BB’s seminar was about creativity from the point of view of a drummer. If he’d wanted to talk about process it would have been a different presentation. It’s pretty extraordinary that a drummer would want to address such questions – the ones I’ve met have not had much time for articulacy – and the response from some staff members was – to say the least – ungenerous . If youhave to be in academia, surely creativity is a perfectly reasonable topic for a music dept (though as an ex-academic I obviously have little time for theory myself). I was disappointed with the response of staff members, who didn’t seem to know much about the way music works in the world outside. Outside academia you survive by being creative, whatever the process. I was left with a feeling that the Dept would rather produce a tribute drummer than a Bruford, and I’m pretty sure any neutral observer there would have had similar worries.

  6. Roger Marsh Avatar
    Roger Marsh

    Wow! I didn’t read it like that a all! It was the drummer in the audience who suggested that drummers are considered to be uncreative, which amazed me. I don’t understand why anyone would think that. Bill is a great and creative drummer – about that everyone is agreed. But once he opens up a theoretical debate like that he has to expect to be challenged. No?

  7. Joel Jarventausta Avatar
    Joel Jarventausta


    I agree with you, Roger, about there being less of a division between pop and classical music. However, it seems like there is still a lot of stigma around a classical performer/composer embracing pop music actively as well. Say, if I wanted to write a pop song – which would inevitably be entirely different to my ‘usual’ contemporary classical music – I couldn’t help to feel that I would be seen as the ‘guy who also writes pop music’. And that this would somehow discredit or undermine the work I do as a classical composer. Same goes for film/game/commercial music. Why do some contemporary composers write jingles under pseudonyms?

    As you say, the two don’t easily combine. Perhaps it is easier (for the lack of a better word) to combine the two through electronic means since EDM (Electronic dance music) is so very popular right now.

    So yes, a composer can embrace both but either with the risk of being seen as someone who can’t do one thing well or with the advantage of being seen as a multidisciplinary artist… It’s not quite this black and white, but what do you think? Perhaps if I was to write a pop song it would have to be as good as ‘Hallelujah’…

  8. Roger Marsh Avatar
    Roger Marsh

    Thanks Joel. I think there’s no harm in wanting to be ‘a multidisciplinary artist’. Kerry Andrew? Composer, singer, song writer, poet, novelist…….. We shouldn’t be afraid to express ourselves if we believe what in what we are doing. The labels other people give us shouldn’t be a concern. So go ahead and write your pop song. If it’s as good as Hallelujah can I have 10%?

  9. David Power Avatar

    Hi Roger – excellent blog and I agree about the virtues of Compoers Ensemble and NMC songbook as teaching aids. I wonder if the Songs Now CD could be added to this list?

    1. Roger Marsh Avatar
      Roger Marsh

      Good idea David! I must have it…..do I?

  10. David Power Avatar

    You should have but, if not, just let me know and I’ll sort it

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