Writing the title for a piece of music

One thing every composer has to think about is titles for his/her pieces.  I'm a cranky individual and I have my own ideas about titles.  I have a set of self-imposed rules. These are not rules for everyone - other people can do what they like - but I stick to them rigidly (except when I ignore them). There is more don’t than do.  Here they are: 

  1. Use your own language 

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking a title in a foreign language sounds cleverer or somehow more 'artistic' than your own - "Un Soir en Hiver" instead of "Winter Evenning".  For me, foreign-language titles are both pretentious and risky.  I say risky because I see a lot of non-Anglophone composers give their pieces English titles, maybe for the mystique of using a language other than their own, or maybe to appeal to an international audience. However, what seems an elegant, sophisticated or touching idea in their own language can often sound clunky in English. Every language has its own fine nuances that can trip up even the best linguist, and you can’t always explain why one word choice is better than another – if we could, we would all be poets.  Sometimes what starts out in one language as an affecting offer of a precious gift comes out in English as ‘I’d Like To Give You A Present’.  

A subset of this rule – when using your own language, don’t dress it up in over-flowery or archaic forms.  The cod-historic sounds ridiculous.  If, to use my previous example, a piece evoked a winter evening, I would rather it were called ‘Winter Evening’ than ‘A Winter’s Eve’. 

Another subset – don’t use titles in your own language that suggest they are a translation of words or concepts from another language or culture.  Like ‘Yellow Lotus Moon’ or ‘the Dance of the Four Hats’.  It smacks of cultural appropriation and, besides, it looks silly. 

And using Latin in this day and age is frankly unforgiveable. 

  1. Don't name a piece after a person 

Just too easy, when you're stuck for a title, to call your piece by the name of a person.  Almost always a woman. And almost always an evocative, exotic name - Adrianna, Marie-Louise, Carmen - rather than an everyday one like Jennie or Gill.   

  1. ...or a place 

Again, an easy way out.  I know it's a very honourable tradition and we couldn't imagine the Iberia suite or Castles of Spain with any other titles but their evocative place names - Granada, Torrija....but unless I felt I'd written something that could really honour a place,  I'd feel presumptuous naming a piece for it.  Especially somewhere foreign to oneself.  If I were to call a piece ‘Pescara’, say, I wouldn’t blame the residents of that beautiful town for resenting my presumptuousness.  Unless of course it was a really stunning piece. 

Somehow, I feel it’s over-reach – as if you are claiming that your piece has somehow captured the soul of the place concerned.  If I ever wrote something that truly captured or evoked the sublime view from Hay Bluff or the beauty of the Elan Valley I might see fit to use the names. 

  1. ….or a month, day of the week or time of day 

Just because it’s such a cliché.  Ok, Brouwer can do it with his ‘A Day in November’, but otherwise it’s an easy and lazy option to call your piece ‘December’ or ‘Thursday’ or, God forbid, ‘Sunday, Four a.m.’ 

  1. Don't write titles just to make yourself look clever 

There’s a trend among composers to do this.  It’s a sort of ‘look at me, I’m not just a guitar player, you know…’ – an attempt to show yourself as a polymath or some sort of renaissance man. A Deep Thinker.  People seem to do this with maths/physics things - titles like “Fibonacci Sequence” or “Fractals” or “Variations on an Angle of Refraction”.  They do it with literary quotations and allusions, commonly Shakespeare.  Greek and Roman literature, ancient history, nods towards the great composers. It’s pretentious, and the music rarely matches up to the pretension. 

  1. Don’t be deliberately obscure 

That is, don’t choose a word for your title that is so obscure it needs a dictionary definition to explain it.  Like, for example, ‘Eucyclic’. The word means ‘having the same number of floral leaves in each whorl’ and might conceivably be relevant to some sort of conceptual piece where you are repeating a pattern over a series of variations.  Or something.  But you’d have to put a note everywhere that gives the definition – which, to me, translates as ‘this composition is aimed only at a select group of the more erudite and intellectual among you’. 

  1. Don’t use the standard classical music terminology 

I have a nagging feeling my music would be played more and taken more seriously if I used titles like ‘Impromptu in C minor’, ‘Sarabande in F’, ‘Sonata in B flat’ etc, and maybe added an opus number for good measure.  But I don’t like to do it for many reasons.  First, my pieces are all really songs (although I am the only one who hears the lyrics), so for the most part I give them song titles.  Second, I’m not too au fait with all the niceties of classical form.  I’m sure if I called something a ‘Fugue’, people would be quick to point out that it’s not a real fugue because the development section doesn’t invert the first subject, or some such blah.  Third, if I did have intimate knowledge of musical forms with these names, I wouldn’t want to be constrained by them.  Fourth, it feels as if by using these titles I somehow staking a claim to be ‘serious’. 

I don’t count things like ‘Waltz’, which is a straightforward name for a piece you could dance a waltz to.  But I wouldn’t simply call a piece ‘Waltz in A flat’ – I’d give it a title and then give ‘Waltz’ as a subtitle. 

I’ve made exceptions – I called one piece ‘Invention in D minor’  because I stole the idea from Bach of writing something with just two voices and no triads.  I called another ‘Study No 1 in A major’  because it’s not really a performance piece, it’s something I wrote to help myself learn a particular technique, and I hope it is the first of many. 

  1. Call it something you wouldn’t be embarrassed saying to someone else 

I find this a good test - if you feel embarrassed when saying the title to other people, it’s a bad title.  Of course, as a composer all the music you write is deeply personal.  And if, like me and most other composers, you are an introvert, then talking about your music with people other than musicians or composers often feels uncomfortable in any case.  If, on top of that normal level of discomfort, I had to tell somebody that my most recent piece was called ‘The Third Theory of Relativity’ or ‘The Widening Gyre’, I would turn the colour of a ripe tomato then run away and hide. 

  1. Call it something that relates directly to the piece 

For the most part, the way I do this is either 

  • Look for something that captures the mood or feeling of the piece.  Hence a title like ‘Radio’ or ‘Near Dark’ . Sometimes it feels to me as though only one perfect word can do it.  ‘Harbour’, for example, precisely captures the feeling of a peaceful haven of calm water, with boats gently rocking on a gentle swell. 
  • Hear the ‘lyric’.  I’ve said my pieces are songs:  I used to write songs, including both music and lyrics, and I have never got out of the habit of matching words to melody.  When I have in my mind something that works as a lyric, or fragment of a lyric, I often take an extract from it as the title of the piece.  It’s a bit obscure, I know: a selected quote from a lyric that doesn’t really exist.  But for me, these titles have meaning, and that seems to be important to me for some reason. That’s the genesis of titles like ‘Time and Again’ and ‘The Long Dream is Over’  - if you listen to these pieces you may be able to hear where those phrases would occur in a song version. 
  • Reflect a characteristic of the piece.  In this piece a ‘trick’ in the composition is that bars borrow a measure of time from their preceding bar in a sort of syncopation, and/or a chord will borrow a note from the chord that preceded it.  Hence ‘Borrowed’. 
  • Capture an image.  ‘Parliament Hill’ is so called because it evokes a very specific image for me of the place of that name, Parliament Hill Fields in London.  ‘Thief’ is so called because the image in my mind was of a (completely imaginary) semi-comical anti-hero in a 1940s French film guilefully evading the local gendarmerie  (This particular imaginary character features in an imaginary series of five black-and-white films shot between 1946 and 1955, set in various picturesque French locations, in this particular instance the port of Marseille.  The films feature much glamorous smoking.)  Often the image is from an imagined film, novel or play, or from a conversation with an imagined person – a quirk of the way my mind works.  

So there you have it, a quick tour of my philosophy of music titles.  Reading it back, I do wonder if it makes me seem somewhat eccentric.  

Oh well.

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