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A “Song” vs. a “Piece” — What is the Difference?

October 31, 2009
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I first learned the difference between a song and a piece when attending a performance class in college.  I felt pretty silly once the distinction was pointed out to me (along with most of my classmates who surprisingly also did not know the difference) — after all, it’s mostly common sense.  Thanks to a very dedicated and insistent professor I will never forget the proper definitions and usage for these terms.

Why was it that I made it all the way to college without knowing the difference between two simple musical terms?  I suppose partly because my previous piano teachers either didn’t know the difference or didn’t consider it an important musical distinction to teach me.  But, what a shame to have missed out on knowing — and therefore misused — this very basic music terminology!  It is the responsibility of  the piano teacher to impart to his/her students a correct and well-rounded music education.  And, it is valuable for students (and teachers and parents) to know the correct definitions and usage of musical terms.  The world needs educated musicians; not just a society of people who simply “play” an instrument.

That is not to say that if you were unaware of the difference you are a bad teacher or student!  On the contrary, if you are reading this message it’s because you are interested in furthering your musical knowledge and you should be commended for that.  The joy in this situation is that it is never too late to learn or improve your musical skills and knowledge! So, you can count yourself fortunate because today a new learning opportunity hascome your way.  As a teacher, you will be able to share this new knowledge with your students and enhance their learning.  As a student, you have broadened your musical understanding.  And, as parents you can provide additional information and support to your budding pianist.  Gaining knowledge is always a positive experience.

Without further ado, here are the definitions:

A Song is “a form of musical expression in which the human voice has the principal role and is the carrier of a text.  As a generic term, any music that is sung…”

In contrast, a Piece is defined as “a composition, especially but not necessarily an instrumental one.”

In other words a song is something that is sung (by a person), and a piece is a composition usually for instruments (ie. no singing involved).  How this translates to the piano is that music which a piano student learns/plays is called a piece, since the piano is an instrument.  For example, piano solos and piano duets will all be called pieces.  However, there are instances when a pianist will play a song and that is when he/she is accompanying a vocalist or group of singers.

Voila!  It’s a simple as that.  Now that you know the difference you can.use the terms correctly and pass on your knowledge to others.

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