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I've seen a song defined as:

A short poem or other set of words set to music or meant to be sung.

And a track as

A recording of one song or piece of music

A song clearly has connotations of singing and a track in my mind has connotations of a stored, recorded piece of music, not the abstract entity itself. In the context of an electronic piece of music with no singing, what is the appropriate term to use to refer to said piece of music?

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  • 1
    If we were being pedantic I think you actually have it right with 'piece of music'
    – bendl
    Aug 21, 2017 at 13:49
  • 1
    My lodger is a retired rock god. He always calls everything tunes. Aug 21, 2017 at 14:37
  • @FumbleFingers That is also the colloquialism I would use Aug 21, 2017 at 14:54
  • Could also be a work.
    – The Photon
    Aug 22, 2017 at 1:53
  • @FumbleFingers That would strike me as a very British phrasing. Oct 23, 2017 at 16:12

5 Answers 5

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Since a song contains lyrics to be sung it is not a song. Considered on its own, it's an instrumental, a "musical composition or recording without lyrics, or singing." For example the (electronic) instrumental "Chariots of Fire" composed by Vangelis for the film score of the same name. It's the first track on the album. A track is a section of an album, usually compromising a single song or instrumental. So as part of an album it's a track, indeed an instrumental track.

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  • But would it be an instrumental song or an instrumental track? This sort of dodges the question and not all electronic music is instrumental (eg. Music that contains only samples without instruments or singing)
    – Patterson
    Oct 23, 2017 at 7:29
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    @Absolute it's not a song, as one can't properly sing a piece of music that has no lyrics. I've edited my answer to make this explicit. Oct 23, 2017 at 13:05
  • Good point! Your answer definitely works better than mine now. I seemed to have missed the "with no singing" part of their question.
    – Patterson
    Oct 23, 2017 at 15:50
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A serious piece of electronic music should be referred to as a composition, because that's where the creative work was performed.

However, if in doubt, use the term preferred by the composer. For example, Jean Michel Jarre, an early figure in electronic music, frequently uses the term concert, since he performs live and records the performances. However, on his website you will also find terms like single and album, which reflect how he saw the work being listened to.

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  • It was performed in a composition? Oct 23, 2017 at 16:12
  • @Azor-Ahai I think he means the work that was put in was put into composing the work, not specifically that the work was performed in any particular setting.
    – psosuna
    Oct 23, 2017 at 18:38
  • @psosuna He? but I see what the meaning might be, thakns. Oct 23, 2017 at 18:46
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    @Azor-Ahai You're right, I deferred automatically to a gender, without really knowing. Could be he, she, or something else. My apologies to comment OP.
    – psosuna
    Oct 23, 2017 at 18:48
  • I know a few people that write electronic music. Their personal terminology varies. A percussion symphony might be divided into movements but the piece would be a symphony or whatever classical form they modeled it on. A tone poem might be a complete piece but might not. A soundscape might be a complete piece, or it might have parts. Overall, though, composition is a term that most (I think) would accept.
    – user205876
    Oct 25, 2017 at 4:19
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I realize semantically music theory professors might refer to all songs as music pieces, but if they're not sung are they songs? and if they're never composed but random, are they compositions? and if they're never recorded are they tracks? and if it's not written is it a piece? So technically:

  • If you're listening to electronic music live, or on the radio it's probably safe to call it a song if it has sung or spoken lyrics; otherwise it's music if you like it, and racket if you don't. Worst case scenario it's noise.
  • If they record it and you play it back, you can call it a track if it's on a compact disc, minidisc, or a record.
  • If you can hold it in your hand like written sheet music it's a piece.

Tracks

In recording, "laying down a track," means recording a song. It comes from original recording methods.

In digital audio composition, a.k.a. Electronic Music, tracks can be either:

  • single instrument samples
  • digital music programs (MIDI for controlling external equipment)
  • audio recordings (eg. sound bytes)
  • software instrument compositions

Often these together form a composition which can be exported as a recorded file from the recording software. Electronic music can also be recorded directly to either an analog or digital recording device, making a song (think Pink Floyd pre-computer recording).

Grooved Recordings

On vinyl records and wax cylinders, tracks are physical grooves of recorded sound vibrations, all recorded at the same time. Sometimes they were songs, sung by a singer, and sometimes they were speeches. When the track ends, there's a flat spot, and then next track encountered is the next recording. This is where phrases like "cutting a track" and "laying down a track" come from since the cutting needle strikes and actually cuts a physical track or groove in the recording media when the needle is laid down on the cutting surface and power is applied to disc. It spins at a set speed, and the needle vibrates based on the mechanical input. To hear something similar to the original, play it back at the same speed and the needle vibrates in reverse as it follows its track.

Analog Audio Tape

On 8-track cassettes, the word track refers to a recording track or sample, just like audio composition, so there were sometimes 4 stereo tracks with different elements on them (drums, singer, guitar lead, bass) or they could have 8 different mono tracks. You might hear a guitar in your left ear, and a singer in your right. These could have electronic music on them as some bands experimented with analog electronic synthesizers when these were popular.

Optical Formats

Compact discs and other optical media have tracks similar to vinyl records in that they have physical "tracks" with pits and bumps that either scatter or reflect a laser light back into a lens. Rather than having physical contact with the disc, a photocell detects the laser and translates the binary data (light, no light) into sound waves or stored data files depending on the reader. Between these tracks there is a space that scatters the laser, and the laser head continues until it hits another track (or the outside of the disc). Tracks on audio cds are synonymous with songs if the audio cd contains music.

Digital Music

When people started "ripping," or converting CD music to MP3 and other audio file formats, they picked up the phrasing. So some people would refer to a song as a track, especially if they're selling analog to digital recordings. Not too many 1920s digital recordings out there that went straight to digital.

Songs

Technically speaking, song comes from the act of singing, so if it's electronic music without singing, is it really a song? Now if a synthesized voice is used, then it could sound like singing, and then could technically qualify as a song.

English is funny, especially American English, and as different cultures merged, people colloquially mix the meanings of the phrases. Spoken word might also be considered a song if it makes you think and is voiced over music.

Other things to consider

  • Since some electronic music is composed with multiple tracks, you could refer to it as an arrangement
  • If it's not the original it could be a remix.
  • Some electronic music is scored as a composition, as in some of the music made for movies by composers.
  • It is technically music by modern definition, though music originally meant it was made by the muses in Greece. So a guy in a mouse hat playing with LFOs might not count.
  • Piece is a strange choice of word for this question, since it comes from the piece of paper a musical composition is written on. Since quite a bit of electronic music is never written, but simply played, or even better, generated with random electronic waves in the case of LFOs, can it be considered a piece at all? Can you hold it and determine its notes and meter without deciphering it?

Update Clare actually read your question thoroughly and noticed the bit about with no singing and added instrumental to her answer which is what you would call it.

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It was mentioned before that you should use the composer's preferred term. This is correct but if you have no direct connection with the composer to ask this, the word track actually fits the bill quite nicely.

When composing electronic music, usually by way of utilizing synthesizers and/or a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, what sequencing software tends to be called when it also integrates audio recording and mixing capabilities into one package), the individual samples and sequences that make up the piece are arranged into audio tracks on a mixer. Incidentally, when the work is completed and the tracks are mixed together to output a complete work, the result is a track as well. Why is this? Well...

If the end result is to create a (popular) electronic work, oftentimes this work will be taken to a stage where it will be played. In order for the work to be played, it will become a track on DJ software, or on a vinyl for a turntable. These tracks are then interwoven to create a set.

When this is not the case (for example, ambient works might not be mixed by a DJ), the word you can use in this case would be a piece or composition. This is particularly true of a "serious" work that is rendered electronically but was originally composed with a specific instrumentation in mind, or is a piece derived from a piece composed for a classical ensemble.

The moment that lyrics and singing are introduced, it becomes a song.

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A track refers to a physical groove on a vinyl record, though of course it is now wider than that so both a song and a instrumental piece can be a 'track' but an instrumental isn't a song.

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  • Please have the manners to indicate what objection you have to my answer.
    – Chris Pink
    Jul 4, 2019 at 7:41

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