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Colloquially, people use "song", even though "song" has actual specific properties.

What is a generic term for a musical piece? "Musical piece" is OK, but there really should be one that is a single word.

Even "piece" is not very semantic, and it's way too general. If you were to say "piece" without any context, it could be referring to anything: machine parts, body parts, abstract concept parts, etc. It implies other instances of its category. It already assumes a context of a musical composition if it's to be used for the purpose of a generic musical piece. (excuse the circular usage)

A "number" in my opinion is even worse semantically, as it has nothing to do with numerics. And it turns out that it implies that it's part of a collection, which is itself not generic enough http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_%28music%29 Even worse yet is that the term obscures the collection aspect of its implied meaning, whereas "piece" does not.

(aside: I find the phrase "did a number on you" to be such a semantic monstrosity of an idiom/phrase that it brings up visceral reactions of violence whenever I hear it)

"Composition" is too generic, as it can refer to writing, software, (etc.). It too can implies pieces built up together, albeit internally (e.g. fallacy of composition). Yes, music can be thought of as being made of many musical notes, pauses, (etc.), but that's a superfluous thing to point out, and not as core to the idea of it being music/sound/auditory.

Anyway, a generic term for a musical composition is needed that doesn't necessarily carry implications of it being part of a collection, and actually semantically implies sound/music so that it's not too general.

why has no one coined such a term in English, or if one exists, not used enough to not require such deep thinking to bring it to the forefront of consciousness?

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    What's wrong with piece? You might be able to use composition. Nowadays, a pretty common term is track. – Ian MacDonald Mar 18 '15 at 18:35
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    What about tune, then? – Ian MacDonald Mar 18 '15 at 18:47
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    In the same way that Rollerblades is a specific term used to refer to inline skates or Kleenex is a specific term used to refer to facial tissue, I don't see a problem using song to identify a musical piece. Only pedants will complain. – Ian MacDonald Mar 18 '15 at 18:53
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    @IanMacDonald - Ah, but "song" isn't a trademark. ;) – Hot Licks Mar 18 '15 at 19:25
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    @ahnbizcad - I think you have it backwards. "Tune" is generally taken to mean the accompaniment, absent the vocal. – Hot Licks Mar 18 '15 at 19:28
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I searched for "hyponym song" and found an interesting page. While the page provides song six senses, only the first ("A short musical composition with words") seems to apply.

One section says:

Hypernyms ("song" is a kind of...): composition; musical composition; opus; piece; piece of music (a musical work that has been created)

I would go with any of these. It should be of little concern that piece can be used in other contexts, as it is a versatile word.

You can call Handel's Messiah a piece and you can call Justin Bieber's "U Smile" a piece. I would only call the former an opus.

As to the (possibly rhetorical) question on why no one has coined a hypernym of song. The hyponyms convey information about the genre, pedigree, length, or quality of the piece. Song does not. Track does not. One wouldn't call Handel's Messiah a ditty or Justin Bieber's "U Smile" a magnum opus, except for comic effect.

  • excellent research and great points. It adds a lot to the discussion. I will counter your excellent points that hypernyms also have value. To say that hyponyms carry information while hypernyms do not is just as valid and neither-here-nor-there as saying hypernyms allow for generality without necessitating specifics while hyponyms do not. My point is that hypernyms and hyponyms each have their utility, and the appropriate level of abstraction (including not being too abstract, like "piece") is the point of language and terms. Imagine if there was no word "parent",and only "grandparent" existed – ahnbizcad Mar 18 '15 at 20:29
  • and whenever you used the only term that exists, "grandparent", you had to ask or find out more whether it was the adjacent generation or any unspecified ancestor that was being referred to. That's how it is with "piece" or "work". "Musical piece" technically does the trick, but I argue that it's aesthetically a mouthful and cumbersome, which is somewhat subjective. – ahnbizcad Mar 18 '15 at 20:36
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    You're welcome! I would rather read a book than listen to it on CD, but in the case of daniellevitin.com/publicpage/books/the-world-in-six-songs I would make an exception: he embeds musical examples in the narrative. If you do read (or listen to) the book, maybe it will become clear why Levitin chose the word "song" for the title. – rajah9 Mar 18 '15 at 20:38
  • Oh, "song" is definitely the appropriate choice there. I'll just say that he didn't really have a choice because other co-hyponyms aren't appropriate, and there is no hypernym! This is actually an excellent example of why "piece", "work", or "musical piece" are lacking. Using any of these overly generic, or cumbersome terms are not catchy or casual enough for marketability... which is exactly my point that is one reason for voicing the lack of a much needed, non-existent term! – ahnbizcad Mar 18 '15 at 21:03
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I'd need context, but go with "piece" or "work" for most uses. If you're looking for a term that includes arias, symphonies, songs, mouth music, smooth jazz, and dubstep—I doubt there is one. We do have the term "oeuvre", but when used (rarely) it tends to refer to a person's total body of work. (See what I did there, with "work"?)

  • There should be one. – ahnbizcad Mar 18 '15 at 20:05
  • "Piece" and "work" and "opus" which is just latin for work, are all too general, and can refer to things beyond music as mentioned in the OP. You need to provide additional context just to let people know you're talking about music after you use any of those terms. – ahnbizcad Mar 18 '15 at 20:20
  • I don't see what you did with "work". It still necessitated context to convey that the over-general term was limited to musical work. A musician could have also been known for lyrics and poetry, which doesn't necessarily get excluded the way you used the term. Thus my point stands. I'm having trouble wording it that doesn't seem to convey hostility, especially since I expressed it about other things in the OP, but please forgive me; I can't seem to find the words. – ahnbizcad Mar 18 '15 at 20:32
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If it's a piece of classical music, it is often called an opus. It is not too general as you suggested because the word's primary meaning in English is not "work in general" but "a piece of music written by a major composer".

If you want to be specific, the German word lied and the French word chanson have both incorporated into English.

An étude is a "piece of music built on a technical motive but played for its artistic value". It can also be found in the English dictionary.

  • The words lied and chanson both mean song in their native languages, and usually aren't used for things other than songs (and usually ones in German and French, at that). – Peter Shor Mar 20 '15 at 12:50
  • opus - any artistic work, especially one on a large scale. It's not limited to music or auditory work. It also conveys magnitude to the everyday ear, making it not suitable for generic intended use. I'm seriously baffled faith-broken by the lack of this word in English. – ahnbizcad Mar 21 '15 at 3:09

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