What Is A Song?

Songwriter-Educator Andrea Stolpe Explores the Definition of a Song In Modern Times

The nature of the popular song has evolved profoundly through the decades as technology has evolved. What one generation considers a great song is forever shifting; those who grew up with the standards of The Great American Songbook felt rock & roll was kid’s stuff compared to the sophistication of their songs. Similarly, those of the rock & roll era feel the same about much of today’s popular songs. Often they crystallize the issue when discussing a modern hit by proclaiming something along the lines of “To me, it’s not even a song.”

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So the issue becomes: what is a song? Has the definition changed, and if so, to what? In the first of a series of editiorials on the subject, we’re happy to have Andrea Stolpe answer this fundamental question. A multi-platinum songwriter and “lifelong lover of the craft,” she’s also an acclaimed songwriting educator, having taught songwriting at the USC Thornton School, Berklee and elsewhere, and speaks frequently on the subject.

Andrea Stolpe. “Great songs are like great listeners. They offer no advice and bear no judgement. ”


Songwriters are more than entertainers, and songs more than entertainment. At least this is how we have defined each term in the recent past. But do these terms still apply in our modern times? Our understanding of great songs, and our ability to approximate writing them, is constantly evolving, which creates some confusion about what exactly constitutes this thing we call a song. 

Every prolific writer knows that the concept of a song is not always the thing which makes it unique.  The majority of songs carve their mark in the world by how they deliver common themes in unique ways, more so than deviating from them. And this extends to melody, chords, and groove – not just lyrics.  

It might be generally accepted that a song must contain lyrics.  A song must also, then, have a sung melody. But in an age when tracks dominate, and ‘songs’ become driven by a synthesized sound embellished with a vocal, deplete of lyrical substance, can we still call it a song? To be fair, I might ask the same question of the meandering singer/songwriter whose 4-minute musical beige fills the awkward gaps in conversation at my Saturday evening dinner party.  

The utilitarian demand for sound in everyday life naturally calls for a variety of music.  More power to musicians looking for ways to express themselves while connecting to viable markets.  But are we being too generous with the term ‘song,’ and can give credit to entertainers where credit is due without also expecting their music to satisfy our craving for a great song.

So what exactly is a song? It’s a speech-numbing question, like “What is spirituality?” or “Where does mayonnaise come from?” It’s almost easier to define what a song is not rather than what it is

But as a life-long lover of the craft, I’ll take a jab at defining the core of song, tracing outward until the edges blur and fade into something that resembles more entertainment than song. I might start like this:

We all listen to music through a lens. Some of us have a lens that emphasizes melody, For others, it’s groove. Still others, lyric. Some of us listen through the lens of individual instruments and production elements. But a song is not its arrangement or production ideas, as supported by the fact that there are many viable ways to produce any song. 

No matter what lens we listen through, a song is always the sum of its parts – lyric, melody, chords, and groove. As songwriters, we naturally emphasize the part or parts of the sum we feel most competent writing. The ability to sing well leads us to write strong melodies. The ability to express ourselves with words leads to songs driven by the lyrics, and so on. It’s only natural that songs reflect the distinctly creative minds from which they spring.

According to a 2018 article in The Psychology of Music, research from the Sixties to the present has shown popular song to: 

say something about what is on the minds of the youth who produce and consume it. The lyrics reflect what young people are interested in, worrying about, aspiring to, and so on…as a sort of funhouse mirror, producing a somewhat distorted image of such aspects of teen “reality.” 

The lyrics of popular songs, the article stated, are important for two reasons: As a reflection, however distorted, of trends in youth culture and of individual concerns of adolescents, and also because music preferences are linked with important indices of adolescent welfare. 

If songs are a reflection of culture, then they inherently say something. Their message, historically, is truth, born of grit, longing, resentment, delight, pain, and pleasure. They are as much expressions of a personal truth as they are a call to action.  They are vulnerable expressions of what it means to be human, laid bare for all to hear and know and belong to. 

Great songs are like great listeners. They offer no advice and bear no judgement.  They are devices through which we all, writer and listener alike, come to understand ourselves more deeply and intimately.

The songs of my adolescence gave me a mirror in which I could see myself and understand the culture around me. I can only hope that my children will be exposed to songs they feel understand them, as I have been. To imagine that for the first time in history, songwriting could be defined by three minutes of sound over which disconnected and mind-numbing phrases are repeated by artists who stumble into music by an affordable DAW, is concerning.  But I don’t think it’s the new reality. It just means we have to search harder for music that moves us, and our souls will know it when we find it.  

Andrea Stolpe is a multi-platinum songwriter, author and speaker, who encourages artists and songwriters to define their intention to share a powerful creative message. With 20+ years experience in the music industry, Andrea Stolpe has penned songs for such artists as Faith Hill, Julianne Hough, and Jimmy Wayne, writing with companies including Universal Music Publishing, EMI and Almo-Irving. Andrea now advises creative minds around the world. She has developed an innovative methodology adopted by Berklee College of Music, USC Thornton and many other renowned music institutions across the U.S. and beyond. 

Learn more and join Andrea on one of her upcoming Songwriting Retreats: www.andreastolpe.com 


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