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Do you have a favorite song? People have probably sung ‘Happy Birthday’ to you, but could you explain what a song is if someone asked? In this lesson, let’s explore the meaning of the word ‘song’ and see some examples of famous songs.

What Is a Song?

At its most basic, a song is a short piece of music, usually with words. It combines melody and vocals, although some composers have written instrumental pieces, or musical works without words, that mimic the quality of a singing voice.

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The words of a song are called lyrics. Lyrics can include a series of verses, the longer sections of the song that tell the story, and a refrain, a short phrase repeated at the end of every verse. Songs can have a simple structure of one or two verses, or a more complex one with multiple verses and refrains. Songs usually have a meter or beat.

Whether you sing or speak the lyrics, you can feel a pattern or pulse in the way the words move the song forward.The word ‘song’ has been around for a very long time, and it connects back to Old English and Old Norse languages. As such a history suggests, songs are used for many purposes: to tell stories, express emotions, or convey a belief in faith.

Sometimes they give instructions or help make difficult, repetitive work a little less tiresome.

Types of Songs

Because singing songs has been around for such a long time, there are many types. One of the oldest songs in the world is a hymn found in Syria that traces back to 1400 BCE.

Throughout the world, many cultures had songs connected to their history, often passed down from one generation to another. Everyone knew them even though they didn’t have sheet music. These are known as traditional or folk songs, and they reflect life and activities of common people.Some folk songs existed for decades before later composers or music scholars finally wrote them down. An example of this type of song is ‘Londonderry Air,’ which came from Northern Ireland. It was written down around 1851, but probably heard for years before that, and given several different sets of lyrics before being connected to the words and a different title for which it’s best known today: ‘Danny Boy.’Sea shanties are an example of another type of song.

Sea shanties were sung on sailing ships and tended to be work songs. They had a repetitive rhythm to coordinate sailors’ activities and help them work together in hard jobs like pulling ropes and anchors, and putting up or taking down sails. One famous shanty is ‘What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?’Songs meant for children are another type of song, such as ‘Blow The Man Down’. You might have sung it in elementary school music class. If you listen to it, does it sound familiar? It was adapted for use as the theme to Spongebob Squarepants!Other types of songs include African spirituals, religious hymns, country music songs, rock and pop songs, and songs from Broadway musicals. Now let’s look at a few examples of songs in more detail.

Examples of Songs

The song we know as ‘Happy Birthday,’ the full title is ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ first appeared in print in 1912.

A music teacher and her sister wrote the words and might have written the tune. It’s a very simple song with a six-note theme and a single phrase, ‘happy birthday to you,’ that’s repeated four times. It changes only once, on the third repeat, when the name of the person celebrating a birthday is added. Perhaps because of its simplicity, we all know the song and probably sing it to someone at least once or twice a year.A slightly more complex song is ‘Amazing Grace,’ often heard in church services and at memorial events. Written by John Newton, a reformed slave trader, the words were matched to its now familiar tune in 1835. In its six verses, the song explores the trials and rewards of faith.

It does not include a refrain line.Now consider a pop song from the late 1960s. In the Beatles’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps,’ five verses chronicle the end of a relationship.

To emphasize the point, three of the verses end with the refrain ‘Still my guitar gently weeps,’ while two verses without refrain build the emotional intensity of the song. It’s very effective and moving.So, the next time you hear a favorite song, listen closely. How many verses does it have? Does it include a refrain? You might catch things you’ve never heard before. Or, maybe better still, try writing a song of your own!

Lesson Summary

A song is a single musical composition that has a melody and, often, words that are sung by a vocalist.

The words of a song, as a whole, are called the lyrics, and they may include verses that tell a tale or move a story along, and refrains, or short phrases repeated at the end of each verse. They are usually written in a meter or a beat intended to keep the song moving. The tradition of singing songs is very old, and there are many kinds, including traditional or folk songs and sea shanties. Songs can be very simple, like the familiar ‘Happy Birthday,’ or they can be more complex, with multiple verses and refrains, as in the Beatles ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’


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