What is a Song?

Is a piece of music, a composition, a performance, a recording? It depends on who wrote it, who played it, and who recorded it. It can be one or two or all three of them. I have been wondering about the definition of a piece of music for a long time. As a jazz musician who takes great liberties in interpretations of other’s pieces of music, as well as my own, it is difficult for me to play the same piece the same way twice.

Is the definition of a piece of music notes on a page? Or is the definition of a recording that was released an album, CD, or stream? What is the definition of a piece of music? Simply is the fact that it was performed enough to define it, even if it was not recorded.

From an intellectual property perspective, the copyright office will give you a copyright if you send them either a score, recording, or both. If you are a Music student at a conservatory, the expectation is that you will submit a score. If you are most kinds of musicians, including pop, rock, country, hip-hop, jazz, and others, a simple recording of a piece of music will suffice.

And does that recording have to be live? Can it be over dubbed? Of course it can. I doubt that most musicians are capable of playing. Most of the music they’re streaming. If someone has a 50-track DAW project but cannot even afford to hire a quintet, then how are they going to play it live?

For me, the answer comes through context. Are you about to perform live someplace? Are you about to be videotaped or recorded? Are you going into the recording studio with a bunch of other musicians or with a bunch of overdubs, a bunch of computer-synthesized parts, or a bunch of pre-recorded loops?

The definition of a piece of music or song seems to be a moving target to me. It seems like it may just be a snapshot of where you are at that moment and that the piece will undoubtedly change.

My current definition of a piece of music is something that is a structure that contains sections, which are comprised of musical segments. These musical segments may be comprised of melodic or rhythmic phrases or themes.

Is there a difference between a variation on a theme and an improvisation based on composition? 

Some large-scale pieces may be comprised of multiple movements.  Some pieces have a single verse or chorus. There may be many, and there may be many, plus an intro or an outro. What about variations?

Unless you play the same pieces the same way day after day and year after year, it can be hard to define what a piece of music is.

So what is a song, and what is a piece of music?