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There's 歌, 曲, 歌曲, 唄, etc. I was about to give a few example contexts, but in English there really doesn't seem to be more than one way in which we refer to a 'song'. I do see different words being used in different places but I can't place exactly why they're used there.

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Regarding the difference between 歌 and 曲:

  • An (entire) work of vocal music, A track (with vocal): Both 曲 or 歌 are used interchangeably, but the former is more common.

    ビートルズの[曲/歌]が2つ入ったCD

  • A work of music without vocal (e.g. a piece of classical music): 曲

    シューベルトの曲を演奏する

  • Music (as opposed to lyrics/vocal), Melody: 曲
  • Song (as opposed to melody/lyrics), Vocal: 歌

    Xが歌詞を作り、Yが曲を作り、Zが歌を入れた。
    (≒the lyrics written by X, the music made by Y, and sung by Z)

And there are other words:

  • 楽曲: A work of music with or without vocal. Sounds a bit technical.
  • 歌曲: Technically it refers to Western classical songs including Lied. Besides this, I think it's a very rare synonym for "楽曲 with vocal".
  • 唄: Basically just an alternative kanji for 歌 as vocal music, which may look poetic, literary, or traditional.

And 歌 may also refer to waka and haiku.

  • To clarify, if a piece of music uses minimal vocals or uses vocals as an instrument (such as much electronic music for the former and Adiemus for the latter), would that typically be 歌, or would it be contingent on the speaker's own preference at that point? – jimbotherisenclown Sep 30 '15 at 12:16
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    A piece of music without meaningful lyrics is not called 歌 as a whole, although one can say there's a short 歌 (or 声) in it. When in doubt, you can always use 曲 :-) – naruto Sep 30 '15 at 14:11
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    歌曲 generally refers to (Western) classical music I think, but not only German (Lied); イタリア歌曲 suggests Bellini and other composers from the 18-19th centuries. But the OP missed out masses of other Japanese words for song: e.g. カンツォーネ means an Italian song, particularly 19-20th centuries. リート refers to a German, シャンソン to a French, ソング to an English language song, and probably others. – Brian Chandler Sep 30 '15 at 16:25
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歌{うた} - This word means "song", but it includes vocals. You wouldn't use it for musical instruments. 歌う{うたう} means "sing", after all.

曲{きょく} - Melody, tune, etc. This one is for instruments, like a song on the piano.

歌曲{かきょく} - I imagine this is a general word for "song", but I don't have much experience with it. I think it's relatively rare.

唄{うた} - I'm not very familiar with this either, but my dictionary lists it as an alternate form of 歌.

  • Thanks, the distinction is clear. Strange thing about 曲 though: I recall seeing it used in a context where people were talking about the lyrics of the song, and 曲 was sometimes used in place of 歌詞, making it seem like they were talking about the whole song (with lyrics included and all). As far as I can remember, 歌 was not once used. – idlackage Sep 30 '15 at 0:55
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    歌 doesn't necessarily require music to be valid, it can be 'poem' also. – Sjiveru Sep 30 '15 at 1:09

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