Songs and Tunes

Songs and Tunes

Looking at some of the recent posts and threads, I’m puzzled that so many people seem not to understand what is meant by a song; the term seems to be used by many people to describe any form of musical performance. I often watch videos posted on the site and follow up through many of the associated YouTube clips, and am struck by how often people will post comments like "this is a great song" or similar, even when nobody is singing. Most users of this site do have a clear grasp of the distinction between "song" and "tune", but we seem to be in a minority in the wider world.

So my question is: do you have a sense of when people no longer understood the key meaning of "song", and why?>

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The common phrases "bird song" and "whale song" may hold your answer.

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Yes, birdsong is a common phrase, whale song perhaps less so, but I’m not convinced by Jerry’s explanation. We have only been aware of whale song in relative recent times, and for many centuries people heard birds singing more frequently than they do now (and I think "singing" is appropriate for birds since the sound is produced by the voice), but in all that time they didn’t usually confuse songs and tunes (when produced by humans) ….

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Some of it may be cultural imperialism spilling over from US/UK pop culture, where ‘song’ is a catch-all term for music since that’s what most people experience via commercial radio hits, etc. iTunes doesn’t make a distinction — even my mp3 of Holst’s suite The Planets Opus 32. is a ‘song’ by Apple’s nomenclature.

Some of it is intellectual laziness and imprecision, like calling a rectangle a square (they both have four 45 degree angle corners, right?).

In the bigger scheme of things, it’s a minor annoyance. But in Kenny’s words on another thread, "words matter."

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Ahem, 90 degree corners! 🙁

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I’m not sure it matters greatly in the grand scheme of things whether the trad police insist that we play tunes rather than airs or melodies (and lots of tunes are derived from airs to songs).

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Let’s just call everything a "hornpipe."

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I’ve mentioned this before but in the trendy "pop(does it get called that still?) world" of today songs are often referred to as "tunes" which is the opposite of what happens here.
🙂

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Could it be more of an American thing, where a lot of traditional tunes were and are associated with songs?

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Bird song and whale song are both vocalisations. As with humans, not all vocalisations by birds are songs. Words are useful.

I suspect that one reason people are prepared to pick up on it here with new members is that it shows that the poster hasn’t done much reading of the forum before asking a question. A friendly ‘heads up’ rather than a "I see you are new around these parts" caution. Usually, perhaps.

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"Could it be more of an American thing, where a lot of traditional tunes were and are associated with songs?"

It is true that a lot of Appalachian fiddle tunes have words, sometimes sung alternately with instrumental renditions of the tune. But they’re still known as ‘fiddle tunes’, not ‘fiddle songs’.

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Patrick O’Keeffe made the fiddle sing, I know that, and Paddy Tunney was a great lilter of tunes. This is a really petty topic, as if the music has become an anal academic affair.
Ní lia duine ná barúil.

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"Ní lia duine ná barúil." And for us non-speakers of Gaelic?

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As many opinions as there are people.

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I blame Apple too: iTunes is the first place I saw tunes called songs!

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If I pay to go to a concert of "songs", I expect to hear someone singing. If I pay to go to a concert of "tunes", I expect to hear instruments played. People who refer to traditional instrumental dance music as "songs" are either ignorant or worse, plain lazy.

Song : https://youtu.be/nPclD-m64Tg


Tune : https://youtu.be/yIesFe5Iutc


In the words of Rich Hall, "It ain’t rocket surgery".

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There’s an old proverb: "Who pays the piper calls the tune."

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I think it’s an American thing - I’ve never really encountered it at home (Ireland) but in the States folks who are very new to trad (either as listeners or new players) seem to use "song" a lot, but as they delve deeper into the music they learn the difference between songs and tunes.

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I have always thought of tune as synonymous with melody. As in, "I like that song, but cannot remember the tune." All songs have a tune. The question is, do songs require lyrics? O’Neil’s has 1,850 "melodies," with a section dedicated to Songs and Airs, but no lyrics. I think we lack a consensus on nomenclature.

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Very courteous of you Borderer to put this in a separate discussion from the one a few lines down.

Anyone who has participated in this forum for a while knows the difference between songs and tunes and applies it. Does that say anything?

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Birds not only have songs, but also sub-songs, calls, wing-whistles and drumming (the last of these is mostly woodpeckers).
I think it’s largely because these who hear a traditional set of tunes without knowing much about it, or when they are first starting out, wouldn’t necessarily know how to classify it.
But I also think that there is a fine line because some tunes have words ascribed to them. Trish, as for blaming Apple, I do see what you mean. Any set of tunes you purchase on iTunes or Amazon is classed as a "song."

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For the sake of clarity, the dictionary agrees with the op. Birdsong, btw, is produced with the voice and does have lyrics. What, you thought they were just making pretty sounds?

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It’s useful to maintain a distinction in meaning between the two words, just so you don’t have explain what you mean as often. But it’s silly to get worked up about it.

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"Birdsong, btw, is produced with the voice and does have lyrics. What, you thought they were just making pretty sounds?"
Examples of bird "lyrics" ?

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Sorry, I don’t speak the language, but the other birds seem to understand. Btw, where does scat singing enter into this? And does it differ from lilting?

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PS - not in out regular session.

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Borderer: So my question is: do you have a sense of when people no longer understood the key meaning of "song", and why?
When? I remember it clearly. "Song," for any musical performance is Apple-Corp speak, introduced with their iTunes, which is a strange twist. As that was 20 years ago, many people will not see it as the dumbing down of language. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

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" no longer" - I don’t know; my childhood memories on the matter are murky - but I would be surprised if your average civilian (i.e., punter) wasn’t using the two terms interchangeably lo, those many years ago.

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Examples of bird "lyrics"… "Polly wants a cracker!" No seriously, most birds have individual call and response language. They definitely have language and as they vocalize it, we can say they do it by ‘song’ . Songs are vocal and tunes are instrumental, and I do think that as fundamental as this distinction is, it is lacking of any musician to not understand it. Music 101!

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"When? I remember it clearly. "Song," for any musical performance is Apple-Corp speak, introduced with their iTunes" I think it goes back further than that, certainly in the recording studio. I have the manual for a console from the early ’90s which deliberately refers to what you would call a ‘track’ on an album as a ‘song’, in order to distinguish it from a ‘track’ as in multi-tracking.

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Just logically:- if songs are the same as tunes, then why do we even have two separate words?

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Tunes by mouth. The mouth can be an instrument. The mouth is able to make music without lyrics.
Songs don’t always have words. Tunes often are in a form commonly referred to as call & rersponse.
Words matter but the context in which they are used matters more.

"So my question is: do you have a sense of when people no longer understood the key meaning of "song", and why?"

It’s a question with a slightly shakey premise. Not an absolutely faulty premise. We mostly know the difference because most here play tunes. ‘Tune’ - that’s the word we use. It is significant. The meaning of the two terms (tune & song) may be clear for Irish trad tune session players yet there can be blurred situations such as tunes which are done without lyrics, not as songs, without a musical instrument; unless the mouth is considered an instrument…which it usually is not.

Is it a tune or is it a song in the context of this link?
https://www.siliconglen.scot/culture/puirtabeul.html

How is the donkey?
;

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I understand the issue well and prefer tunes as a term for what I play. I also prefer session rather than jam session. I play devil’s advocate sometimes, just to point out the inconsistencies that make educating the low and unrefined a fool’s errand.

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I never really thought of trad tunes (nor players) as particularly high & refined. To me they are unassuming, subtle and nuanced rather than high or low; refined or unrefined… trad

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Yes, it is older than Apple: Mendelssohn wrote "Lieder ohne Worte": (songs without words).
And I’m sure I said the same on a previous thread on this same subject a while back: deja vu (already seen).

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Definitely a sessiondotorg topic from the Mustard Top 10. Happy New Year & many reruns.
Until next time, may all your tunes be unspeakable.
Peace in 2020!
AB
;

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For me, the use of "song" to refer to a tune predates Itunes/Apple. Back in the 70s, when I started fiddling, a violinist friend who was learning fiddle always said, "song" when referring to a tune, and was very stubborn about sticking to it. No, I didn’t mention it to him more than once, and that not in a mean-spirited way. Me, I find it irritating but I just shrug it off.

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@trish santer "Mendelssohn wrote "Lieder ohne Worte": (songs without words)."
In the german language there is no specific word for tunes, so you use "Lied" for both, song and tune. Or you say melodie for a song without words.

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A song is a tune that has words.

Words that don’t have a tune is a poem.

A tune that doesn’t have words is a tune.

What’s the problem?

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Linguistic degradation.

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In French you have either "un chant" or "une chansson" for a song and "un morceau" for a tune. The problem is that 99% of the people only listen to songs (so I suppose that music = song for them). Moreover, "morceau" is strongly related to scholarly music, even trad players avoid this word preffering to use english terms instead.

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" The problem is that 99% of the people only listen to songs "

This is true even on the so called "folk scene" which is why I prefer to use the word "traditional" to describe the bulk of the music(and song) which I enjoy.

In the early days of the folk revival, the places we visited were usually known as Folk SONG clubs but "song" generally fell out of use as a descriptor over the years. However, the vast majority of "folkies" still prefer to listen to songs of some description or other. The odd tune or two is sometimes welcomed as it "breaks things up" but a whole night of them is usually regarded as a bit too much and a little boring. So, we will often get a situation at gigs when some first class players feel obliged to include one or two songs in their sets to appease some audiences when, in fact, they are not the best singers in the world(I’ll be kind and not offer any examples).

Now, I’m very much aware that traditional Irish, Scottish, etc music has existed long before that and even thrives outwith the folk music circuit. It pre-existed the revival and still continues independently of the folk music scene for the most part. In Scotland and England, however, there has always been an overlap which has often caused some confusion and friction especially at folk festivals and some sessions. Less so, in Ireland from what I’ve experienced.

Yes, I’m quite aware that this post has little to do with the discussion in this thread so far but I thought I’d just throw a little more oil on to the fire. 🙂

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There is the fact that songs become tunes ie on the Mustard are loads of songs but they need to fit into the dance tune category and so can correctly be described as "tunes". Thousands of Irish SONGS are played at sessions as tunes? True.

Life is complicated, friends.

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"Thousands of Irish SONGS are played at sessions as tunes? "

I think you might find out that wasn’t the case if you checked things more closely, Susan. It’s probably more common for song composers to borrow the melody of an existing "tune" rather than the other way around.
Of course, a small number of songs are adapted to be played as "tunes" e.g. "Airs" but not so many of the "dance" variety i.e. reels, jigs etc.

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It is a moot point which comes first - the song or the tune. Songs undoubtedly get absorbed into the tradition and used as tunes without the words. I’m sure, very often, the song came first - in Ireland not to say rest of UK.

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I’m just having a "wee keek(As they say in Scotland)" at some of the more popular tunes here.

https://thesession.org/tunes/popular?page=1

I can’t really identify any in the first few pages where the melodies were originally songs(I may be wrong).
There is a song "Tam Lin", of course, but that has a competely different melody.

I could offer many examples of songs which have borrowed traditional melodies. Here’s a very enjoyable one.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEaqelPup_c


See https://thesession.org/tunes/636

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The German word Lied and the Swedish låt are related (we also use it for anything which is sung or played, e.g. the number of "låtar" on an album, or in a concert, låtskrivare (song writer/composer), låtlista (set list, track list))

I find the distinction between song and tune useful though.

I once heard someone say this:
"We learned two songs this morning - one was a reel and one was a jig."

I thought it sounded a bit funny.

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Well, original songs get put into the tune mould, as you say Jeff "one a reel, one a jig". As many tunes/songs go back 100s of years, who’s to say if tune or song came first? Impossible to prove. Examples galore, an interesting subject for a music researcher perhaps. (I have now turned the song "Lovely on the Water" into a waltz by recently posting it here!)

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Thanks for replies everybody. Since there were 50 posts within 24 hours, I don’t think the issue is unimportant (as a few people have suggested). Further to Susan K, the point is not whether a tune or a song came first, but how you describe a piece of instrumental or vocal music at a given time. If we’re not bothered about terminology, why do we use classifications into reels, jigs, hornpipes and so on? I remember being totally thrown once at a mixed tune and song session, when a member of the audience said to me, "Give us another one of your fiddle songs!". It took me a while to figure out what he meant.

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It all comes down to people blurring the lines again. It’s like the vanishing d1ff3r3nc3 b3tw33n l3tt3r5 4nd numb3r5.

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C13v3r, @B4rry M0rs3. 🙂 My take on this is that songs are poems set to music, and tunes are the melodies (no words). For instance, many Christian hymns are songs, set to Scottish tunes. Old Hundredth, anyone? Thank you, Scots. 🙂 🙂 🙂

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@ John knoss - I’m not sure, but it sounds lovely on the bodhran. 🙂

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I may be an old cynic, but session musicians think of "tunes" as being the point esp. on those sessions that are only instrumental. Songs are a fundamental sort of music predating the making of instruments I guess as everyone can open their mouth and sing - pretty basic. Ah, well I’m entitled to my opinion about the primacy of SONGS>

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"session musicians think of "tunes" as being the point"

Sorry, Susan, but they are "the point" as far as most of us are concerned especially as regards this site and "instrumental sessions" .

That’s not to say many of us don’t also enjoy listening to songs, singing ourselves(some of us), going to concerts featuring singers and(yes) someone of us may even like to attend singarounds or those sessions which will happily welcome a mixture of song and tunes.
However, while we’re here or at an instrumental session, we will naturally focus our attention on "tunes".
😉

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"Songs are a fundamental sort of music predating the making of instruments"

I wasn’t around at the time, of course, but I think early human beings would be just making sounds with their voices rather than actual songs. They would also be just as likely to be banging sticks or rocks together and would have probably worked out that they could get various pitches and sounds this way too.

So very primitive musical instruments would likely have existed for almost as long as the human voice I’d suggest. As I say, I wasn’t there at the time although some of the older members here may have been.
😛

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Pooh. How can one possibly know whether voices used musically from the beginnings of the human race, or as John suggests, primitive instruments. All conjecture (mine too JJ).

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A
The word song comes from the Old English singan (sang, etc.) which refers to the songs of persons, animals or inanimate objects, be they “songs”, tunes, poems or noise. “Tune”, on the other hand is a variation on tone which comes, through old-timey French, from Latin from the Greek tonos which meant literally “tightening”, “stretching” or, wait for it, “vocal pitch”. So, the mistaken use of “tune” for “song” when referring to instrumental melodies seems to have started sometime between the battle of Hastings and the recorded use of “tune” in the 14th century or so.

🙂

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Australian Aboriginal people had songs. They were (still are in parts) a crucial part of cultural survival. Their knowledge of their universe and their whole belief system was represented in song. The landscape and inseparable ‘spirit-scape’ was orally mapped in ancient ‘song-lines’. But as they only had very limited monotone instruments such as clap-sticks and didgeridoos (and despite modern belief didgeridoos were only used in the Arnhem Land region of the top end), they didn’t have tunes… only songs. And okay, once again, people may argue that a song has a tune, but that word would be redundant to them. And of course the human voice and ‘song’ came before melodic musical instruments. But that, of course, has nothing to do with the original question.

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"As I say, I wasn’t there at the time although some of the older members here may have been."

I was there, and I can confirm that, during our hunting trips, we would bang on rotted out logs, dried gourds, and something we called a bodhran, being a primitive version of a percussion instrument, to amuse ourselves when we had nothing to do.

We found we could also use our dinosaur bludgeoning-tool, which we called a tenor banjo, for limited melody purposes.

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Chimpanzees bang on rotted out logs and things (so do elephants, I believe) but percussion in itself doesn’t add up to a tune.

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Ah, but you CAN get a tune out of a bodhran, if you know what to do with your left hand (assuming you are right-handed!) My favourite is the William Tell overture end part: those almost as old as the cavemen and cavewomen here will recognise it as being the theme tune to "The Lone Ranger".

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I understand that the most.recent science indicates that music preceded speech in man’s evolution. Therefore, tunes came before songs.

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Proof?

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Possible humming and even whistling to mimic birds perhaps?

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Good enough for thesession, Michelle.
;

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Can’t post a link from my phone, but will do so ASAP

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"Possible humming and even whistling to mimic birds perhaps?"

I think it’s more just in the basic nature of hummin beings.

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The oldest known musical instruments are flutes found in Southern Germany which are over 40,000 years old. They are made with some skill, and, fascinatingly, produce four notes which are the first half of our standard diatonic scale: Do, re, mi, fa. Some prehistorians think they may have been made by Neanderthals, but this is a minority opinion. I believe, though, that most prehistorians think that there existed anatomically modern humans at least another 50,000 years before these flutes, so these artifacts don’t say anything about whether music preceded speech. An internet search on something like "world’s oldest flute" will return more information.

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As a flute player I would love to think that ours was "the first," but it’s probably just that flutes made from bones survive better as artifacts compared to instruments made of wood, skin, and gut that decompose quickly. It could have been the frame drum or the banjo, for all we know. 🙂

Joking aside, I think percussion and possibly dancing came first, maybe before language. The human body’s response to rhythm seems to be at a very deep neurological level. And we’re not the only animal that dances, or at least has some form of stylized movement for mating rituals. That goes way down the evolutionary tree.

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"I understand that the most.recent science indicates that music preceded speech in man’s evolution. Therefore, tunes came before songs"…. Well I don’t know how science could possibly know that. But what is *philosophically* logical is that thought precedes speech. It therefore follow that humans mentally envisaged tunes before they thought to put words to them. All the same, that could have been thousand of year before the invention of any musical instrument. Therefore they had songs first. I also think that there is good reason and evidence to consider Conical Bores consideration of dancing. Song and dancing ‘stories’ are totally inseparable in traditional Aboriginal culture.
You know folks, that I keep thinking that we have drifted right of the topic topic here, but in a way, I see all this as being an much broader topic that asks ‘How do Irish TUNES represent Irish landscape and culture. Don’t tell me that they don’t! It seems to me that songs are something different and more recent.

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Damien, I found when I spent a while playing music in France and not being that fluent in French, people (both on the street and in sessions) normally told me "morceau" was the word to use in French for what I played. Though that could vary from region to region.

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‘just bang the rocks together guys’ [Douglas Adams, Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy]

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Anything from the Hitchhiker’s Guide it true to me!

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“Well I don’t know how science could possibly know” By studying the vocalisations of other primates. I’ll try to find a link later, it may be the one that 5string fool has in mind. One suggestion was that the wordless vocalisations were a way of letting predators know that the group was alert.

Why would anyone want to use one word for two things when there is an accepted word for each of them and plenty of ways of discussing anything that has elements of both?

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To bring it back to the OP, can I suggest that the biological/evolutionary roots of music (while obviously fascinating) and etymological distinctions of how we describe it (equally enthralling) do little to illuminate our current practice in perpetuating the expression of our shared traditional heritage.

In other words, it doesn’t matter why we use the words that we do to describe what we do, as long as we know what is meant when we do do what we do…

…because words matter. You can call a spade a toothpick if you like, and you’ll be wrong, but as long as you use it the way you’re supposed to, nobody’s going to mind (other than the usual pedants like myself, and possibly your dentist).

Current usage is unambiguous, in my experience. A song is sung, a tune is played. The melody of a song is still a tune. Adding words transforms it back into a song. If somebody comes up to me after a set of tunes and says "great song!", I’ll smile and nod, but internally I’m going to be judging them…

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The word ‘song’ is from the same root as ‘sing’ and has always referred to a piece of music for singing. So in the most basic sense, calling a fast reel a ‘song’ is straightforwardly wrong.
However, we all use words in ways that are not strictly correct - ‘wicked’ to mean excellent rather than sinful; ‘nice’ to mean pleasant rather than close or precise; and so on. So judge not lest ye be judged…

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Yes, we are maybe getting too bothered about it. Of course, a gentle word to newbies here explaining the difference is OK too.

As I said earlier, songs are often referred to as "tunes" too.

"And she followed me to London to a hundred hotel rooms
To a hundred record companies who didn’t like my tunes"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yuwhUx35Uc


Not Irish music but I used to like it. 🙂

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"The word ‘song’ is from the same root as ‘sing’ and has always referred to a piece of music for singing. So in the most basic sense, calling a fast reel a ‘song’ is straightforwardly wrong."

But ‘choir’, ‘chorus’ etc. come from a Greek word with the original meaning of ‘a place for dancing’ (hence also ‘choreography’, ‘hora’, ‘horo’ etc.). Semantic shift is an inevitable force in the evolution of language.

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Dance element can add to confusion about tunes. eg I know what I call "Mrs Hill’s Delight" tune actually "Bristol" (see on thesession). Mrs Hill’s is in fact the dance name as printed in a v old Scottish Folk Dance book. A pleasant tune and I prefer to label it "Mrs H’s Delight"! Very danceable… (easy to play).

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I think it’s time for someone to compose a piece based on this thread and call it "Pedant’s Delight." Up for grabs as to whether it should be a song or a tune. (Smile)

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On the original post, it is worth considering this article from the BBC site. Titled, "5 ways music has changed in the 2010s." After reading some of it, you will realise it is not really about music changing, its about songs, and the front people who sell them. The music is not important.

https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-51061099

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Fascinating, if slightly inane discussion.

As usual, it is veering towards the mythical "pure drop traditionalism" that every generation insists not to be to insist that all tunes (yes, my understanding of a song in Irish music is something sung) are to be always called tunes. Language and meaning change rapidly across time and cultures, and music is a particularly assimilative medium. Stands to reason we should be welcoming and understanding of these differences and changes while retaining an understanding of what was.

I want to draw your eye to an interesting observation:

In contemporary Irish, the word for song is "amhrán"; clearly a word from the Irish tradition. The word I most commonly hear for tune is "tiúin"; clearly a loan word from English. While "port" is clearly used commonly as well, it’s something to stew on.

Also, I’ve yet to find a decent air outside of the harp music that doesn’t have direct roots in an Irish language song. Would it be appropriate to call them songs?

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In reply to fluther; Yes, language is very fluid and meanings change over time but to call everything a song leads to confusion over the material under discussion. Maintaining the song/tune differentiation aids clarity.

As to airs, if you play the melody only it is a tune, albeit the tune to a song; when the words are added it becomes a song. I think that I am in the pedant’s camp on this.

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how many of O Carolan’s compositions, now played only instrumentally, were originally songs? I have heard reference to lyrics but dont think I ‘ve ever heard any of them sung. Just asking!

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Ailin: "Pedants’ Delight" - a delightful new dance tune maybe…

As for Carolan’s tunes, I think most of them had words (Gaelic of course). A great read is Donal O’Sullivan’s book about Carolan, packed with lovely musical examples. Costs around £20 when last I looked on Amazon.

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What I find is that people who arrive at a session and talk about "songs" instead of "tunes" often go on to request "Danny Boy" or even (shudder!) "something by Rod Stewart".

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I’m doubtful about the whole concept of any traditional Irish musical piece being originally a song. Surveying older books (back to the 17th century) of such music, one gets the clear impression that there are two categories of sources: traditional airs (music only,) and traditional lyrics (words only,) and that the song performing tradition consists of performers matching one to the other. Among the traditional airs, some are of such a nature that it’s only practical to perform them as instrumentals, others are of such a nature that it’s practical to perform them either as instrumentals, or as songs by selecting lyrics from the lyrics tradition, or by composing new lyrics that match them. (No doubt the situation is more complicated than this, but the impression I myself get at least is that the overall situation is such as I’ve described.)

Thus it’s extremely common to find at the head of song scores in 19th century books of Irish traditional songs, "Words by [name of lyricist]" and "Air: [name of traditional air,]" implying that the song consists of a traditional air to which a lyricist has composed words that fit it. I think this practice, and how common it is, is reflected in some lines from Sean O’Casey’ s play Juno and the Paycock:

Boyle: … I’m goin’ to tell you somethin’, Joxer, that I wouldn’t tell to anybody else — the clergy always had too much power over the people in this unfortunate country.

Joxer: You could sing that if you had an air to it!

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"Words" extremely important to Carolan - read the Carolan book by Donal O’Sullivan I refer to above. An excellent investment (updated a few years back - by a woman I believe). 17th century Carolan is a star and a one-off in the history of Irish traditional music.

But maybe Carolan (the credited composer and blind genius) is a bit outside mainstream Irish tradition. Some of those posting here have said as much. He was undoubtedly influenced by contemporary classical composers also (Geminiani??).

Re: Songs and Tunes

"mainstream Irish tradition"

Most of the music here is outside that too. It all depends on what you mean by "mainstream"?
🙂

I like to play a few Carolan tunes myself. Eleanor Plunkett and Bridget Cruise are two of my favourites on the harp but I usually use the mandolin for trickier ones such as Carolan’s Concerto and Draught.
There’s also the well known ones too, of course e.g. Si Bheag, Si Mhor, Fanny Power, Planxty Irwin etc. I need to practice a few more of them though.

Re: Songs and Tunes

A few Carolan tunes frequently get an airing at our session, usually towards the end of the night.