Does a Song Need to Have Words?

What qualifies as a song? What is a beat? If you are new to music production, there may be a few terms you’re uncertain about. When discussing or marketing your music, you may not know what terms to use for what. A common question heard among new musicians is whether a piece of music is a song if it does not have lyrics.

Today, I want to clarify that question and explain the differences between a song and an instrumental.

Does a Song Need Words?

Technically no, a musical composition does not need words to be a song. However, it must utilize vocal cords. The definition of a song is a piece of music written for the human voice. However, not all forms of singing use lyrics made of real words. If a music composition is intended to be sung, regardless of the sounds coming out of the singer’s mouth, then it’s a song.

In regards to modern music genres—such as pop, rock, and rap—a song usually means a piece of music sung with lyrics. If you want to write music without adding any vocals to it, then there are different terms to refer to it (see the next section). If you want to make noises with your voice but without actual verses being written, there are specific terms for songs like that as well (see the section after next).

What Do You Call Music with No Words?

Music without words is called an instrumental; it can also be called a backing track (or in jazz/classical music, an accompaniment), especially if the music is meant to have lyrics and vocals added later.

In modern pop and rap music, an instrumental is often referred to as a beat. In this context, beats can specifically mean one of two things:

  1. A backing track written without lyrics, intended for a rapper or singer to acquire at a later date so they can compose their own words and sing over top of it. These beats are usually sold exclusively or leased for a nominal but affordable fee.
  2. A musical piece made without the intent of lyrics or voice being added, usually with a melodic hook performed on a non-vocal instrument such as saxophone or guitar. These beats are usually designed as incidental music, meaning they are meant to be played in the background without the listener’s focus being on the music. A common example of this would be lo-fi hip hop tracks that are commonly found in YouTube playlists for studying or relaxing.

Lastly, there are forms of music that have vocals but not lyrics…

What Do You Call Singing Without Words?

Music that is sung without words goes by a variety of names depending on the region or genre. Terms for this include: lilting, diddling, yodeling, kulning, doo-wop and scat singing. A generic verb to describe non-lyric singing is to vocalize, which may imply the use of open-mouth vowel sounds (like a choir going “oh” and “ah”).

A vocable is the name for a nonsense word or sound that’s sung without any meaning to it. If you’re just singing “ohs” and “ahs” in the background, those vowel sounds would be vocables. There’s no specific term for a singer who only performs those vowel sounds in a song, but it’s usually referred to as backup or harmony vocals.

Types of Wordless Singing

Now as for those more specific terms I gave at the start of this section, they each have their own specific genre associated with them. Let’s briefly break those down:

  • Lilting or diddling is the Gaelic form of wordless singing, specifically with a rhythmic swing to it. Lilters usually perform traditional Irish or Scottish jigs but with nonsense vowel sounds.
  • Yodeling is a German form of wordless singing that involves quick jumps between the singer’s high and low registers. It is often quite loud and likely developed from herd calls, much like our next term.
  • Kulning is a Scandinavian legato wordless singing style that originated from traditional herd calls (noises made to call cows or sheep back from the pasture). This technique is often done in the singer’s highest register and makes use of ornamental blue notes.
  • Scat singing is a vocalization style in jazz music where the singer improvises variations on a melody using nonsense syllables and sounds. The technique was borrowed from earlier ragtime artists such as Gene Greene in the 1910s but made popular in jazz by artists like Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong.
  • Doo-Wop is a style of wordless vocalization similar to scat singing but prevalent in early rhythm and blues music. Doo-Wop is often sung by a group of singers with minimal instrumental accompaniment.

This is not an exhaustive list of non-word singing styles. There are many more cultures and music genres that have employed wordless songs. But this sample at least gives you an idea of how the voice can be used as an instrument without ever singing a single comprehensible line of lyrics.

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