Cover Songs vs. Interpretations: What’s the Difference?

In the music world, covers and interpretations are frequently mixed up. Most often, interpretations are mistakenly referred to as covers, ouch! Here, I’ll take you on a brief music etymology diatribe, so you’ll be ready for your next open-mic night.

A “cover” is when I learned how to play a Maroon 5 song when I began to play guitar and sing. A cover is yet another performance of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” at your nearest open-mic night. A cover is the “Tribute to the Beatles” cover band playing in Reno this weekend. A cover is often a tribute to the original song, group, or artist. A cover is when an aspiring musician performs a song in close likeness to the original. Vocal inflections, tone, time and feel all attempt to honor the most well-known recording of a particular song. Most musicians begin their musical careers with cover songs. Learn the chords for Nirvana, James Taylor, Taylor Swift or Adelle songs, and you’ve got a friendly list of covers to perform at the local bar on Tuesday nights.

gsk2oAn “interpretation” is when a musician creates a new song out of an old song. An “interpretation” is inspired when an artist believes they can make new art with another artist’s canvas. Musicians even compose and perform interpretations by their peers. An artist may love the original song, but she hears another version stirring within her, and the interpretation becomes her own. A well-known example of interpretation is Jimi Hendrix’ “All Along the Watchtower,” which was originally composed and performed by Bob Dylan. Interpretations have immense artistic quality, and the new music stands alone. Some pieces of music have historically had many successive interpretations. Even songwriters who perform their compositions are interpreting their own work! One music composition need never be performed the same way twice.

Next time you’re jamming with friends or enjoying open-mic night, knowing the right lingo can go a long way towards not sounding like a boob. If you’ve been working on a Mumford & Sons cover, say so. If someone just performed a soulful, acoustic interpretation of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” say “Hey guy, I like your interpretation…”

Singer-songwriter Joan Baez is the queen of musical interpretations, whether she’s interpreting her own works or the works of others. In 1964, Baez made Phil Ochs’ “There But For Fortune” a chart hit. I like this interpretation…

For more musical interpretations (and originals), visit my own music page!