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song, relatively brief, simple vocal composition, usually a setting of a poetic text, often strophic, for accompanied solo voice. The song literature of Western music embodies two broad classifications—folk song and art song.

Apart from the recently discovered cuneiform tablet containing a song from the Middle East of the 2d millennium B.C., now thought to be the oldest notated music known, and apart from ancient Greek song (see Greek music), the manuscripts of which are lost, the first outstanding examples of art song before the baroque period are those of the troubadours, trouvères, minnesingers, and meistersingers. The refined, lyrical air de cour of late 16th-century France, for one or more voices with lute accompaniment, provided the inspiration for the ayre composed by the early 17th-century English lutenists, among whom were John Dowland, Thomas Campion, and Thomas Morley.

The Italians centered their principal attention upon the development of the opera. The principle of accompanied monody, which originated in Italy and is inseparable from the early development of opera, also marked the beginning of modern accompanied song, although the speech rhythms of recitative and the elaborateness of most opera arias are usually thought of as being beyond the realm of song. A direct influence is shown in the German lied of the 17th cent., a monodic song with a basso continuo accompaniment. Outstanding among earlier examples are the Arien of Heinrich Albert (1604–51) and those of Adam Krieger (1634–66).

The German romantic lieder of the 19th cent., in which the vocal line and the piano accompaniment are of equal musical significance, are considered to be among the finest of all art songs. The lied style was articulated by Schubert and developed further by Schumann, Brahms, and Hugo Wolf. Among the poets whose lyrics they used were Goethe, Chamisso, Eichendorff, Rückert, Wilhelm Müller, Heine, and Mörike. Among modern German songs those of Hindemith and of Schoenberg are outstanding. Some of these require the technique of Sprechstimme, a pitched declamation that is a hybrid of song and speech.

In France a renewed interest in song composition began in the 19th cent. with Berlioz and was continued in the works of Franck, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, and Poulenc. The foremost Russian composers of the genre include Glinka, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Gretchaninov, and Glière. The dramatic songs of Moussorgsky are particularly significant. In the United States the songs of Stephen Foster had such national appeal as to become incorporated into the folk tradition. Charles Ives brought a striking originality to the modern American art song.

See ballad; carol; chantey; hymn; plainsong; rock music; and spiritual. See also birdsong.


See P. Warlock, The English Ayre (1926); E. Schumann, German Song (1948); S. Kagen, Music for the Voice (1949); D. Ivey, Song: Anatomy, Imagery, and Styles (1970); D. Stevens, ed., A History of Song (1960, rev. 1970); H. T. Finck, Songs and Song Writers (1900, repr. 1973); J. Hall, Art Song (1974); M. Booth, The Experience of Songs (1981); S. S. Prawer, The Penguin Book of Lieder (1987); R. Lissauer, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1991, rev. ed. 1996).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the most common type of vocal music. A distinction is made between folk songs and songs intended for performance by professional musicians. Songs are also categorized by genre, form, method of performance, and other considerations (for example, revolutionary and everyday songs, lyrics, hymns, songs for one voice and multipart songs, solo and choral songs, songs with or without instrumental accompaniment, songs for professional singers, and songs for mass performance). One word is used to designate both song (Russian, pesnia) and art song (romans) in some languages (German, Lied; French, chanson; and English, “song”).

The song is characterized by a special type of connection between the music and the lyrics. The melody is the generalized, total expression of the imagery in the text or lyrics. Unlike the melody of the art song, that of the song is not connected with particular poetic images or inflections in the text. Rather, the melody and the text are similar in structure: they consist of equal (and in music, identical) units known as strophes or couplets. Often, there is a refrain, or pripev. The phrasing and articulation of the music correspond to the articulation of the poetic strophe. Consequently, the melody of a song can be performed with different lyrics, if the strophic structure and meter of the original text are preserved.

The folk song is found among all the peoples of the world. Its origins are closely associated with labor processes. In remote antiquity ritual songs emerged: calendar songs celebrating the new year, spring, bathing, or harvest and family songs marking a birth, wedding, or funeral. Nonritual, lyrical songs were extensively developed. A strophic structure is characteristic of most of the folk-song genres. The narrative song incorporates a variety of plot situations. Often, the narration is combined with a monologue and dialogue. The most common form is the monologue song. The inner world of the hero, the emotional and psychological content of a song, is often unveiled allegorically through various types of parallelism and symbolism. The folk song influenced the development of the literary song. Today the song, a genre of professional music, coexists with the folk song.

As a genre of professional music, the song originated many centuries ago. In Europe the most important stages in the development of the song as a professional art form were the creative work of the classical poet-lyricist, who wrote both verses and melodies; the creative work of the troubadours, the trouvères, the minnesingers and the Meistersingers; the development of the secular, choral polyphonic song (chanson); the rise of various forms of everyday solo and ensemble songs; and the emergence of the Hussite songs, Huguenot hymns, and Protestant chorales.

The lyrical chamber song, which developed in the second half of the 18th century, was accompanied by a keyboard instrument. The mass revolutionary song flourished during the Great French Revolution, when it was used to propagandize new ideas and to appeal for support in the struggle against the enemies of the Revolution. The “Marseillaise” and “Ça ira,” which originated during this period as artistic symbols of the people’s liberation struggle, retained their significance in later periods. During the 19th century song genres were important in music. The art song and the song became separate forms. However, it is not always easy to establish the dividing line between them.

Closely associated with the rise of the working class and the beginning of its struggle for liberation was the development of the workers’ revolutionary song, which was performed at demonstrations and meetings, as well as in the underground, in penal servitude, and in exile. Among the most famous of the revolutionary songs and hymns that achieved worldwide popularity are the “Internationale” (France), the “Warszawianka” (Poland), “Garibaldi’s Hymn” (Italy), and “Riego’s Hymn” (Spain). The workers’ revolutionary song consistently served an important organizational and educational purpose in Russia. A number of songs became widely known, including “Boldly, Comrades, in Step,” “Rage, Tyrants,” and “We’re Renouncing the Old World” (“The Workers’ Marseillaise”). In the 20th century, during the prerevolutionary years and the Great October Socialist Revolution, there was an extraordinary flowering of the Russian revolutionary song.

The folk song and the revolutionary song were the sources for the Soviet mass song. (The term “mass song” originated in the postrevolutionary period.) The mass song has sensitively reflected the most important features of the spiritual life of the toiling people at various stages in the country’s history. It became one of the leading genres in Soviet music, especially during the 1930’s and during the Great Patriotic War (1941–45), and it has attracted the attention of many Soviet poets, including M. Isakovskii, V. Lebedev-Kumach, M. Svetlov, A. Surkov, and A. Fat’ianov. Moreover, the mass song has greatly influenced other genres, including the art song, the opera, the cantata, and motion-picture music. Among the mass songs that have won broad popularity are Dunaevskii’s “Song of the Homeland” and “Song of Kakhovka,” Belyi’s “The Eaglet,” Blanter’s “Katiusha,” A.. V. Aleksandrov’s “The Sacred War,” Novikov’s “Hymn of the Democratic Youth of the World,” Solov’ev-Sedoi’s “Moscow Region Nights,” Pakhmutova’s “Song of Uneasy Youth,” Muradeli’s “Buchenwald Tocsin,” and Ostrovskii’s “Let There Always Be Sunshine.” Many mass songs have become well known abroad.

In the 1920’s the song also began to flower in other European countries, in connection with the development of the social and revolutionary movement after the October Revolution of 1917. (Songs by Eisler of Germany and Schulhoff of Czechoslovakia are associated with this period.)

The variety stage song, or popular song, which is often linked with jazz, has been extensively developed in the 20th century.

Since the end of the 1940’s, there has been a rebirth in a number of countries of the traditions of the chansonnier, a singer who creates the melodies and, often, even the words for his songs (for example, G. Brassens and C. Aznavour of France, and B. Okudzhava of the USSR). Contemporary foreign popular and mass songs are characterized by a high degree of ideological and artistic heterogeneity. They have been negatively influenced by mass culture (“pop music,” for example). However, at their best, foreign songs reflect progressive social aspirations, including the youth movement for peace and social progress, which has brought recognition to a number of popular singers (for example, the Americans Pete Seeger and Joan Baez). The social, organizing role of song is especially evident at festivals of democratic youth.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a. a piece of music, usually employing a verbal text, composed for the voice, esp one intended for performance by a soloist
b. the whole repertory of such pieces
c. (as modifier): a song book
2. poetical composition; poetry
3. the characteristic tuneful call or sound made by certain birds or insects
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005