03 November 2011

Save The Song!

The English language, like any truly living language, is in a state of constant change; words come and words go as society evolves and the demands on language change.  I welcome the constant additions to this wonderful language and conjugate the verb To Google as merrily as the next man, while never feeling the inclination to make use of the word Wight in my everyday parlance.  True, this latter word might have made a useful comeback a few decades back when the feminist movement was at its height and was vociferously objecting to the masculine implications of Wight’s modern day manifestation, Mankind.  (Those were the days when ardent feminists were so anti anything male that they even described themselves as Wo-persons, although I don’t recall anyone addressing the male implications of the last syllable of that word which, fortunately, never did make it into common usage.)

The English language is also fortunate in adopting new words which have some logical etymology; not for us those vaguely ridiculous phonetic concoctions such as the Welsh Ambiwlans or the farcical Malay Ais Krim.  When new words are invented for English they usually have some individuality even if, as in Google and its predecessors Hoover, Xerox and Biro, it’s merely the original trade name or, as in the case of the Fax, a simple abbreviation.  New words like Motherboard and Laptop trace their origins clearly while describing precisely the objects to which they refer.
Unfortunately, though, there is a downside to all this linguistic fine-tuning.  When a new word is required, there is a nasty habit of merely stealing an existing word and forcing not only its meaning to change but denying the word access to its original meaning.  A classic case is Gay - I used to be Gay (happy) but now I’m not Gay (homosexual) – but that’s by no means the only one, and I’m currently drumming up support for the preservation of Song.

It may have been the late Steve Jobs or some other blinkered Geek (and there’s another fine new word) who, lacking in linguistic imagination, chose to employ the word Song when devising the i-Pod.  The fact is, by that little act of thoughtlessness, he has risked perverting the English language for all time.  True, most early adherents to the i-Pod did use it to store songs, but many also used it to store purely instrumental music too.  And the damage has been done.  They put their Beethoven Symphony, their Brahms Sonata, their Debussy Prelude, in the ubiquitous song-list and thereafter refer to these great works as Songs.  It’s become so endemic that a huge number of young people now assume Song is merely an alternative word for Music.  At the moment no major dictionary defines Song without alluding to the necessity of words:  “A Song is musical composition with words performed by one or more voices” is the consensus definition.  But for how long is it going to last?
Sadly, although most dictionaries still define the word Sonata as a musical composition without words performed by one or more musical instruments, in the musical world Sonata appears in too many differing contexts to allow it to resume that generic meaning.  If we need to use a generic word to refer to a musical work for instruments, we tend to use Piece, which already has far too many alternative meanings to be a really satisfactory equivalent to Song.  So, into the vacuum created by the absence of a suitable catch-all term for a non-vocal composition, the late Mr Jobs has been able to exert his pernicious influence over our language and in doing so has caused confusion.

Confusion?  You say.  How so?  Surely this is just the natural evolution of a living language?
Mendelssohn wrote a series of wonderful pieces for piano which he called (in German) “Songs Without Words”.  A perfect title for music in which the pianist is obliged to imitate the effect of a voice while, at the same time, providing the implied singer’s accompaniment.  Most who know them will accept they are the products of supreme genius.  Sadly, after hearing countless young students treat them as exercises in aggressive touch, virtuoso pianism or simply staccato articulation, I have started to ask questions and discovered that young pianists have no idea what a Song is anymore.  Take this conversation with a teenage pianist; and I have it on tape (or at least the digital equivalent, an SD card – for which no suitable word has yet been developed) so this is absolutely verbatim (and what a lovely word that one is).  He had just thumped his way, toccata-like, through Op.67 No.2.  Not a hint of a cantabile line or of any legato phrasing.
“Can you explain the title of this piece?  What does Mendelssohn mean by calling it a Song Without Words?”
“He means you to play it without words”
“Surely you usually play a piano piece without words.  Why do you think this one has that specific title?”
“So that you are not tempted to use words”
“Can you tell me what we mean in music when we call something a Song?”
“A song is something you play”
“What kind of musician in particular would perform a song?”
“A guitarist; a keyboard player; a drummer.”
So you see, we have a problem and unless we do something very soon we’re going to lose the word’s current meaning and thereby deny generations of performers easy access to understanding some of the great works in musical literature.  Not all linguistic development is to be welcomed, and here’s one we must fight with all our might.  We must Save The Song!

4 comments:

  1. Dr Marc,

    I share your regret at the increasingly widespread misuse of the word "song" to include non-vocal works. But as well as displacing the much more suitable "piece", I think it is also eliminating the equally irritating use of the word "number" to mean any item of music. As in "we'll just run through a couple of numbers from Messiah" and "I've always thought Op 119 are one of Brahms' best numbers." So perhaps the cloud has a silver lining.

    Dr Peter.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Haydn "fifths" quartet.
    Beethoven 9.
    Honegger's Pacific 2-3-1.
    1812.

    All great numbers !

    ReplyDelete
  3. Interesting post! Sometimes the word "song" is used when we actually meant music.
    Dr Marc, you have an impressive background!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Dr Marc,
    I was reminded of your posting earlier today, while stuck in traffic and listening to Symphony 92.4. Having played the carol (or is it a hymn ?) "Oh come, oh come Emmanuel" the announcer could for once have referred to it legitimately as a "song", but instead called it a "tune". And then shortly afterward identified a Bach suite a "song", just to add insult to injury.
     Good music ? Good grief !
    Dr Peter

    ReplyDelete