At its simplest, song is a musical work that has both a melody and vocals. It can be a short piece with one or two verses, or a longer composition that tells a story. Songs usually have a verse structure with a refrain, and they may have a meter or beat.
Some folk songs accompany activities such as religious ceremonies, dancing, labour, or courting; others tell stories in an emotion-oriented style, such as ballads. Classical art songs are often elaborate in both melodic and accompanimental complexity. The 19th century Romantic composers Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms developed new ways to vary a strophic melody, while Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré used flowing accompaniments to underpin or illustrate the voice.
Song has a long history in the human imagination, and it’s been shaped by different cultures. It’s difficult to define, however, because a song is so much more than just the lyrics and melody. The whole context in which a song is created, experienced, shared, and preserved defines the kind of music it is.
In some cases, the same song can be classified as pop, country, rock, or Broadway musical music depending on the cultural and historical background that it reflects. Similarly, the meaning of a particular rap or other genre song can be influenced by its lyrical content and how it’s perceived by the audience. A study in the UK, for example, found that gangster music with violent lyrics can cause people to think about criminal acts they would otherwise ignore.