Listening to a jazz radio station as we made dinner, I was surprised to hear the announcer describe every track as ‘a song’, even though the programme was a sequence of purely instrumental tracks. ‘What’s your next song?’ he kept saying to his guest, who’d reply without batting an eyelid, ‘My next song is a great one for saxophone, bass and drums’, or whatever.
I can only imagine that calling everything ‘a song’ is a habit provoked by iTunes, where everything seems to be labelled a song. But to me a song is sung by a singer. If there’s no singer, then it’s not a song but something else: a piece, a track, a number, a movement. That a song is something you sing seems something very ancient and basic. What next: will someone who plays ‘a song’ on the piano be called ‘a singer’?
To call an instrumental piece ‘a song’ seems almost like calling a slice of bread ‘a drink’. No doubt historians of language will say that if enough people call an instrumental piece a song, then ‘song’ will become standard usage, and soon nobody will think a thing about it. But as far as I’m concerned, we’re not there yet.