Sunday, November 29, 2015

music/singing: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Sunday, November 29, 2015

After my wife—an accomplished soprano—reported indignantly that a friend of hers had stated that her church had “no music, only singing,” I began to notice the same tendency among my students to equate music strictly with instrumental music. I was told by one that “the singing interfered with the music” (i.e., the accompaniment). In the classical realm most listeners seem to prefer instrumental to vocal performances, which is odd given the distinct unpopularity of strictly instrumental popular music. People rejoice at the sound of choral works at Christmas but seldom seek them out at other times of the year. Serious music lovers rightly object to the linguistic sloppiness that denies the label “music” to works by such composers as Palestrina, Schubert, and Verdi. From the Middle Ages to the late 18th century, vocal music reigned supreme, and instrumentalists strove to achieve the prized compliment of “sounding like the human voice.” The dominance of orchestral works is a comparatively recent phenomenon.

In contrast, my students often call instrumental works “songs,” being unfamiliar with the terms “composition” and “piece.” All singing is music, but not all music is singing.

This week on the podcast we present Paul Brians’ reading from his blog post “Let’s Talk Turkey” and a discussion of lots of other place names.

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This is the tenth year of the Common Errors in English Usage calendar. To celebrate, we are bringing back some of our favorite interesting, funny, but sometimes merely silly entries through the years before going on hiatus in 2016.

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  1. "Tune" and "melody" are other handy terms for describing instrumental music. I direct a youth fiddle group where I often have to gently correct the kids (and their parents) when they refer to the pieces from their repertoire as "songs," explaining that songs have WORDS. (Which are, in turn, set to a melody... which differentiates them from poetry... or rap, which to me doesn't really constitute music at all).

    1. Think of rap as a latter day version of Gregorian chant, except more incoherent.