0

After researching the use of the words: piece, work, song, I am becoming confused about how these words are used to describe music (or how they relate to music).

So far, it seems that a work of music = a large piece of music.

A piece of music is a smaller part of that work. Is that correct?

A song is something that is sung, but a piece/work of music is composed/work. A m I correct?.

Yet, I can say: I have just heard a wonderful piece/work of music. (referring to a song ).

I suppose an English teacher might disagree with a musician about the use of these words. I would appreciate any examples or definitions to help me understand these words better. Thanks

2

When you're talking about classical music, both work and piece refer to a single, complete composition. A piece is not a smaller part of a work.

However, you use the word work more often when connecting it directly to the composer, while piece is used more from the point of view of the performer or the listener. So you could say,

I just heard a wonderful piece of music. I think it's one of Beethoven's best works.

There I've referred to exactly the same composition as a piece (from the listener's point of view) and a work (connecting it to the composer).

[ An aside: you can use these same words with nearly any artistic creation. A painter can create a work (of art) and a painting can can be a piece (of art). ]

A song is indeed something that is sung, but it is also a musical work and a piece of music. Most musicians would not refer to everything that is sung as a song though - a song is usually relatively short (no more than a few minutes) and, in particular, has one main melody. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has a lot of singing in it, but it is not "a song" because it's too long and has too many melodic lines and choral sections to be properly called a song.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Good answer. I was in the middle of composing one on similar lines. There are many kinds of vocal music that are not songs - operas, and settings of the traditional words for church services, for example. – Kate Bunting Aug 17 at 19:02
  • +1 on good answer. One point - there are some works, like suites, where the individual parts can be called pieces, too. – Jack O'Flaherty Aug 17 at 20:09
1

Work of Music

"Work of music" is not an especially common English phrase. It is used, but not nearly as frequently as "piece of music."

If you follow this link to the ngram, you'll see that "piece of music" was 32 times more common in published works in 2019.

Of the handful of examples of "work of music" that I scanned through, a significant portion (maybe a majority) were found in philosophical discussions of music or art.

Unless you are discussing the nature of music, or of art, I would suggest avoiding the phrase "work of music"1 - clearly some people use it, but some people will find it strange, whereas virtually everyone will find "piece of music" normal.

Piece of Music

Piece of music is a very general term. Music is a mass noun in English, so if you want to speak of a single unit of music, you have to use piece. This is just the same as with other mass nouns: you can't say a music, just as you can't say a software, an advice, a clothing (it's piece of software, piece of advice, piece/article of clothing). So anything that you would refer to as music can be a piece of music: the so-called "Symphony of a Thousand [musicians]" or a melody you hum.

An important note: a piece of music can be referred to as "a piece" - as in, "the orchestra played one piece that was forty-five minutes long." We also use piece in this way when speaking about other works of art (i.e. you can call a dance composition or a work of visual art "a piece"), but we would not say, "I have a lot of software installed on this computer - Firefox is my favorite piece" and probably would not say "She gave me a lot of advice - one piece was especially useful..."

Be careful, though, a piece of pop music would probably not be referred to as "a piece." When listening to a Beethoven album, "This is my favorite piece" will definitely be acceptable; when listening to a Miles Davis album "This is my favorite piece" will probably be acceptable; when listening to an NWA album, "This is my favorite piece" will sound pretty strange.

Song

As another answer points out, not everything that is sung is properly called a song. And on the other hand, pieces of music without words are often called songs. For example, the iTunes store has a section called "Top Songs." It's likely that all ten of those compositions do have words, but if a piece without lyrics sneaked onto the list, they wouldn't feel the need to change the section heading to "Top Tracks."

Again, the context is important. You're more likely to hear song used to refer to an instrumental piece of pop music than a classical composition without lyrics.


  1. On the other hand, it is common to refer to certain musical compositions as "works." For example, we might speak of "the works of Mozart" or "the works of Beethoven," or we might regard one of Mozart's compositions as "a work of great beauty and power." Calling a composition "a work" suggests a fair amount of gravitas. We would probably not refer to a television jingle "a work" and we're more likely to write of "the works of Mozart" than "the works of Madonna."
| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.