What is a song?

Does this seem like a strange question? Surely we all know the answer? Well, this is something that’s been preoccupying my PhD research lately. To summarise the research itself, I’m investigating (between now and 2014) the methods that collaborative songwriters use, and the decision-making (and veto) processes that take place between two or more creative individuals. My methodology is a combination of interviews with successful songwriters, co-writing new songs with various people, and undertaking background research in various fields of study, mainly the psychology of creativity.

In any research you need to try to define your parameters, and the unexpected challenge arose when I tried to define what a (Western Popular) song actually is. Apart from the fact that it necessarily needs a vocal (or it would be an instrumental) it can become very difficult to find criteria that define ‘song-ness’. For every characteristic of ‘song’ you identify, you can find a successful example of a work that doesn’t exhibit it. For example, if we say the majority of songs are in 4/4 time (and I think most people would agree that they are) we can find tens of thousands that aren’t. If we say a song is around 3-4 minutes long, we’d be right most of the time, but I’m sure we would agree that All My Loving and Paranoid Android (2:09 and 6:24 respectively) are both ‘songs’. If we say that most songs have lyrics that are about romantic relationships between humans, we’d be right, but there are millions of songs that cover other areas of meaning (or deliberately have no meaning).

So I’m working on a ‘checklist’ that identifies the characteristics of most popular songs, to work out the size and shape of the creative ‘box’ in which songwriters operate. This is not to say that all songs will have all these characteristics, but rather to create a defining filter that enables us to measure the ‘song-ness’ of a piece of music, so that most songs would exhibit a majority of these characteristics. Here’s my first stab; feel free to drop me a line (via Facebook, WordPress, email or Twitter etc) if you have any suggestions for additions to the list. For now, these are not in any particular order, but eventually I may group the characteristics into music and lyric characteristics, and perhaps in order of relevance.

Song Identification Machine v 1.0

Most Western Popular songs;

  • Have a single vocal
  • Have a single central lyric theme or idea
  • Include the title in the lyric
  • Are sung between a two-octave range from bottom C to top C (C2 to C4)
  • Are between 2 and 4 minutes in length
  • Are lyrically about (usually romantic) human relationships
  • Feature a single sympathetic character, portrayed by the singer
  • Are in 4/4 time
  • Remain in a single key
  • Use underlying 4, 8 and 16 bar phrases, with occasional additions or subtractions
  • Feature a repeating chorus that summarises the meaning of the song
  • Feature a chorus that reaches a higher pitch than in the rest of the song
  • Feature one, two or three characters (or a collective ‘we’)
  • Are sung in the first person singular
  • Start and end on the home chord (chord I) of the key
  • End on a downbeat or a fade when recorded
  • Feature an instrumental introduction of less than 20 seconds

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