The Ethnography of Song

A song is a musical composition written to be sung by the human voice with or without instrumental accompaniment. It combines tones, rhythms, and sounds organized by a composer.

A melody is a musical line or pattern of sound and silence, usually at distinct pitches (melodies). Lyrics are words created specifically for music.

Stylistic choices, such as mood, tone, imagery, and rhyme scheme, add depth to songs and poems. They give the composition meaning and help create emotion.

Lyrics can be simple or complex, depending on the artist’s preferences. They may be in rhyme or not, and they can include short verses with catchy hooks that make the listener want to repeat the song again.

Choruses are the culmination of a song’s big ideas. They usually contain the hook and should represent the moment where the song’s tension is released.

Bridges are short breaks in the choruses that signal a change of pace. They are usually only done once at the end of the song and serve as a reminder to the listener that there is more to the song than just repetition.

The study of music (including songs with lyrics) has been a longstanding interest of ethnographers. Our collection of texts and audio recordings on musical behavior shows that songs appear in every society studied; that they vary along three dimensions (formality, arousal, religiosity), more within societies than across them; and that music is associated with specific behavioral contexts such as infant care, healing, dance, and love.