What is the difference between "Opus" and "Song Cycle", because "Opus" is a separate composition or a set of compositions. A song cycle is the same, isn't it?

Whenever I go to wikipedia for a song, for example when I searched up a song cycle called Winterreise by Franz Schubert, it said that it was his 89th opus, but didn't they just say that it was a song cycle?

Any response is appreciated.


How do you know whether an opus is part of a song cycle? Pls give me an analogy to help me.

  • Especially for Schubert the opus numbers do not carry you far: there are only some 160 of it, and Schubert wrote alone more than 500 songs. There are only three cycles: Die schöne Müllerin, Die Winterreise und Der Schwanengesang, the latter being no single cycle, but made one by the editor, who also invented the name.
    – guidot
    May 9, 2016 at 20:21
  • 3
    In case it's not obvious to the OP (or any other reader), the term "song" is now often applied to any piece of music, particularly in the context of popular music. On the other hand a "song" in classical music refers only to a work for one or more solo singers, usually with an instrumental accompaniment (which is usually a solo piano part). Perhaps the OP is (or was) confused by the more general meaning of the word "song," particularly in "youth culture".
    – user19146
    May 9, 2016 at 22:16

4 Answers 4


All song cycles might have an opus (Latin for "work") number, but not all pieces with opus numbes are song cycles. Symphonies, concerti, sonatas, tone poems, etc., might all have opus numbers, but none of those are song cycles.

A song cycle is a collection of songs intended to be performed together. Often the songs will have a common theme or they might tell a story when performed or heard together.

A song is a musical work that is focused on one or more vocal parts, usually vocals that have lyrics (sung words). Not all pieces that have vocals would be considered songs, but all songs feature the vocals.

For example, the 14th piano sonata composed by Ludwig Von Beethoven is called "Sonata number 14" and it's also called "Opus 27, number 2", because it is the second half of his 27th work overall. That means that about half of his works numbered Opus 1-26 are piano sonatas (i.e., sonatas 1 through 13), and half of them are something else. A piano sonata is a work written for solo piano that is divided into movements. Since there is no singing in a piano sonata, it is not a song, and would never be part of a song cycle.


  • How do you know whether the song is not from a song cycle?
    – Tia27
    May 9, 2016 at 20:02
  • 1
    @Tia27 If you hear a song on its own, I don't know how you would tell whether it's supposed to be part of a song cycle or not without some additional information. May 9, 2016 at 20:06
  • So what you are saying is that all song cycles might have opus numbers, but not all opus/set of composiotions/separate composition that have an opus number are part of a song cycle?
    – Tia27
    May 9, 2016 at 20:09
  • 1
    @Tia27 Yes. A song cycle is a specific type of musical composition. A symphony is not a song cycle. A sonata is not a song cycle. But different song cycles, symphonies, and sonatas (along with all kinds of other musical works) have been given opus numbers during the baroque and classical periods. If you read the linked Wikipedia articles there is a lot more detail. May 9, 2016 at 20:12
  • 1
    @Tia27 Opus numbers are not subdivided typically (no reason to classify 2nd movement of a symphony separately), but see below. The most common indication for a part of an opus is, that somewhere it is stated, that the song in question is from opus nn instead of just opus nn. Also, as in the Schubert impromptus, where four are summarized in one opus, a phrase like op. 90, number 2 may be used.
    – guidot
    May 10, 2016 at 9:21

Opus is just the musical term for a work. There is no further meaning in the word. It is just the word for a composers work.

A song cycle on the other hand has a lot more of stylistic elements to the word. A song cycle like wikipedia mentions "defies definition" to a great deal, but there is still some stylistic characteristics.

A song cycle not like a Opus is specific to voice works. The breadth of the singing can be wide, as little as two songs or as many as ten or twenty. The kicker is that these songs are meant to be sung in there entirety.

Also to me at least the Song Cycle has a great deal to do with the French and German tradition of Kunstliedern (Lied) or Art Song as it is known in English.

Although there where instance in the pre romantic era where songs were sung in batches they do not always hold true to the stylistic elements common to the song cycle.


To add on to the already helpful answers, correctly classifying Opus translating simply to "work" but a song cycle being a type of work. Taking that further classifying a work as a song cycle the song cycle would include that the work is 2 or more songs and that songs are a combination of a melody sung by a person, that may or may not be accompanied by various instruments: a full orchestra, a piano or other instrument combinations. Examples of the varied instrument combinations bring to mind the song cycle by Ernest Chausson (a 19th to 20th century French composer of melodie, the French word for what the German's called lied) "Chanson perpétuelle" which calls for a soprano and piano quintet and then other different and more modern examples, David Leisner's "Outdoor Shadows" for high voice, piano and guitar and John Corigliano's Three Irish Folk Songs for Flute and Tenor. Song cycles not only vary in the instrumentation paired with the voice and the type of voice but also have different text "connections"...some more abstract, evoking a mood or style and some clearly connected as a story.

Beethoven's "An Die Ferne Geliebte" was the first song cycle, according to general academic sources (textbooks used in Music History coursework at most Universities and Conservatories as well as Google;). The music is stylistically tied. It is for voice and piano and there is a clear story told from the first song to the last through the text and music. Schubert and Robert Schumann took up the mantle and composed song cycles that told stories and this has carried on to today. Most composers of the 19th and 20th century wrote for voice and there is a rich catalogue of song cycles. The structures of the cycles are varied according to the composer's style and there are now many cycles that don't tell a story but rather evoke a similar mood or are simply a batch of songs created for a particular instrument set (high voice and piano, baritone and string quartet, etc.), the batches being a practical packaging to help a performer in programming of a performance/recital...therefore the performer has a "set" and the composer gets his or her work performed. Samuel Barber wrote a song cycle called "the Hermit Songs" in which all song texts are poems written by Irish monks between the 8th and 13th centuries and those are all clearly connected with themes of solitude, faith, etc. However, his Opus 13. for piano and high voice is less clearly connected in text. One of the songs is written by James Agee, the American 20th Century author, and is not religious in nature, and then one text is written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Victorian poet who was very religious and explored religious themes in his writing. The other two are varied in text as well but the tie is an evoked mood, as well as the four songs being likely well performed by one particular type of voice.


"Opus" is purely a catalogue number, assigned by the composer or by someone else.

Opus 1 may be a piano solo. Opus 2 a string quartet, Opus 3 a song cycle.

Maybe the individual songs in a cycle will be labelled Op.3a, Op.3b, Op.3c... Or we sometimes see Op.3 No.1, Op.3 No.2 etc. It's all down to whoever does the cataloguing.

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