Thursday, February 14, 2008

Name That Instrumental Tune

What’s the composer of instrumental music to do? The title of a song is usually defined by the lyrics. But when there are no lyrics, there is nothing to hang one’s hat on. Nothing that intuitively determines a title. How does a composer of a purely instrumental song put a label on his creation?

In the old days, it was good enough to name instrumental music by the type, key signature, and serial number. Is it the fifth symphony in C-minor? Then I guess the name would be “Symphony #5 in C-minor”. Gee, that was easy.

Somewhere along the line, opus numbers came into being. But they were often added posthumously. Composers really didn’t care about opi. (Actually, the plural of opus is “opera”, but it’s not nearly as funny. And who would believe it, anyway?)

Occasionally, some descriptive word would get attached to a piece of music. That’s why we have a “Moonlight” sonata and a “Revolutionary” etude. These names filled the need to identify the songs, but they really weren’t the “names” of the songs.

In the 19th century, some popular composers realized that their songs actually needed marketable names. John Philip Sousa attached names to his marches like “The Washington Post” (it was actually commissioned by the newspaper) or “Stars and Stripes Forever” (it really has lyrics, but nobody cares).

Scott Joplin earned a whopping $360 in his lifetime for “The Maple Leaf Rag”. A better title wouldn’t have helped. And “The Entertainer” was certainly entertaining enough; it just wasn’t real popular until Marvin Hamlisch rediscovered it in “The Sting”.

So what’s a modern instrumental composer to do to title his songs? Here are a few hints.

Make it memorable
Use real words, even if you put them in some strange context. There may not really be such a thing as a “Pink Elephant”, but it would make a cool name for a song.

Make it appropriate
Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” works because the song really does feel good! “Grazing in the Grass” may not make you want to graze, but it sure makes you feel like you should be doing “something” in the grass. And it’s a whole lot better title than just “That Song with the Funky Cowbell Part”.

Make it unique
There are probably a million songs named “I Love You” or some generic title like that. If you do a Google search and you find your song title, you have some more thinking to do.

Make it personal
One of my favorite instrumental titles is “Tuesday Morning”. I bet you can tell when that song was written. Of course, it means something to the composer. Whether it means anything to the listener is irrelevant, because it’s so easy to implant yourself into the song’s history.

Have fun with your titles. It’s usually the first thing that your fans encounter — even before they hear the music. Never forget that the melody makes the song enjoyable, but the title makes it memorable.

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