The Title Pool

The Title Pool

David Rakowski
Photo by John Aylward

What’s in a title? A piece by any other name would sound the same. Do they relate to the music? Should they relate to the music? Does there even have to be a relationship?

It’s pretty hard answering all of those questions, because the answer is different for every composer—and indeed, even for different pieces by the same composer. Titles are specific and nonspecific, poetic and concrete, generic and particular, clever and stupid (between which there is a fine line). Titles can suggest how to listen to a piece, or give no clues whatsoever; they can link a piece to a tradition or ostentatiously renounce one; they can call attention to technical details in the piece, or they can refer to extra-musical metaphors that may have informed its composition; they can even suggest something of the personality, prejudices, training, or hobbies of a composer. So trying to answer those questions with a yes or no is foolish—since the answer is yes and no. Except to the very first question.

One thing’s for sure—a piece’s title is frequently the first contact between the composer and the listener. It’s through the title that the listener will form his or her first impressions or set expectations (or preconceptions) about the piece and its composer. A perfect example appeared on this website in a review of a CD of music by this writer: “if I were going to infer anything from the titles bestowed upon his compositions, my guess would be that this guy is a total goofball, or at least harbors some strange affinity towards Babbitt’s bon mot titles.” Got it in one.

So what is a “good” title? What is a “bad” title? Are those even pertinent questions? Even the “best” title in the history of humankind can’t save or make up for clunky writing and mishandled form, and by the same token, the “worst” title can’t take away from a sublime moment when, say, the English horn emerges from a busy texture and takes over. Density 21.5 refers to the atomic weight of platinum, but is it a “good” title for a solo flute piece? Daniel Felsenfeld’s Smoking My Diploma reveals Danny’s attitude toward the physical manifestation of the conclusion of his education, but does the title prepare me adequately to listen to a piece for amplified and distorted oboe, cello and piano? Would I listen to the piece differently if it were called Composition for Amplified and Distorted Oboe, Cello and Piano? Hey, supposing the answer to that question is yes, would it actually be a different piece if it had a different title? Suppose Varèse’s piece were called Starts Low, Gets High. Suppose The Pines of Rome were called My Weekend in the Bahamas. Or Smoking My Diploma

We’re inundated with titles every day, from newspaper articles to books to poems to technical manuals to pop songs to pieces of visual art and a lot more. In most cases it’s the title that is our shorthand, or placeholder, for referring to those things when we think about them or talk about them. So, by that token, it must be good for titles to be unique, or at least distinctive. But, of course, titles are not subject to copyright. I can call my bassoon duo Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor if I want to, or Scrapple from the Apple, or The Wizard of Oz. If titles were copyrightable, there would be no more pieces called Symphony No. 1 or Invention or “Call Me”—indeed, all the short titles would already be taken, and titles of new pieces would be as long as this paragraph.

Let’s talk about popular music. I love the titles of Country and Western tunes because so many of them indulge in clever punning and word play—after all, who could see the single of “All My Ex’s Live in Texas (That’s Why I Live in Tennessee)” at Tower Records and not be tempted to buy it? Or “Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth Because I’m Kissin’ You Goodbye”? It’s a great game making up C &W titles for songs that will never be written—my personal favorite is “Even My Dung Beetle Can’t Stand You ‘Cause You Ain’t S**t.” These titles serve a commercial purpose: they are memorable and unique, so that when you go to the CD store or look online you know what to ask for. And when enough people ask for it, down payments are made on real estate by artists, distributors, agents, and everyone else in the chow line.

The titles of commercial pop songs similarly are meant to be memorable and particular, and in a pretty rigid way. Most often the title comes from the song’s hook. Since the hook usually comes in the chorus, you hear it several times during each play; so naturally when you go get your own copy, it’s the hook that you remember. Think “Let It Be” or “Hollaback Girl” or “Little Red Corvette” or “I Want You Back” or “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” or any one of hundreds of other songs you may know—admit it, when you read the titles it brought to mind a little bit of those songs. (Now quick: Symphony No. 4! What piece came to mind? How about Intermezzo?) Still, pop song titles are not unique—wizened ones may remember that “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips was one of two songs on the Billboard Chart with that name at the time it was making me lurch so frequently to change the channel. And a brief trip to iTunes reveals no fewer than 129 tracks with that name available for download, of which more than half are different songs.

Since mass market popular music is overwhelmingly vocal music (i.e. songs, with text), the relationship between the song and the title is usually straightforward. And titles of songs, and by extension, album titles are generally short. An album’s title should fit on the spine of a CD case, after all. Of course, there are exceptions to this tendency. But I doubt Fiona Apple would get up in front of an audience and say, “I’m going to sing a few tunes from my album, When the Pawn hits the conflicts he thinks like a king what he knows throws the blows when he goes to the fight and he’ll win the whole thing ‘fore he enters the ring there’s no body to batter when your mind is… (That’s just half of the title; I fell asleep typing it). The side of the CD reads “Fiona Apple—When the Pawn.”

In the world of so-called art music, the impulse to sell is less of an issue, hence titles are more abstract and more varied—especially as so much of it has no text from which to draw a title. I imagine that in the early days of notated music, titles were hardly an issue at all. The vast majority of notated music was vocal music, and it was easy to refer to a piece by the beginning of the text (the closest thing the medievals had to a hook). If a composer wrote a polyphonic setting of the Agnus Dei (called in the church “the Agnus Dei”), it was pretty sure to be called “Agnus Dei,” so as to distinguish it from a “Requiem Aeternam,” which has a different liturgical function. When Perotin set a text that began with the phrase “Viderunt Omnes”, I’m pretty sure it was called “Perotin’s ‘Viderunt Omnes'” (and not what several generations of music appreciation students have called it: “the ‘Ee-hee Hee-hee Hee Hee’ song”). I also imagine it became a little harder when composers became suitably prolific to have multiple settings of the same text, especially a Mass. Here’s where the underlying chant material might have been used to identify which mass setting a particular composer did—e.g. the Armed Man Mass.

I imagine that when instrumental music started to come into its own, then titles became more important. No familiar text to quote? How do I think of this music and what do I call it? Hey, how about a canzona per sonare? If you like that, you’ll love Canzona per Sonare No. 2! But those were both just practice for Canzona per Sonare No. 3! So a whole new class of titles emerged having some reference to or derivation from Latin and Greek words for sound and singing. Sonata? Sounding. Sinfonia? Sounding Together. Concerto? Sounding Together. Cantata? Lots of singing. Oratorio? Really, really serious singing. Also, when composers became more particular about which instrument played which part, titles simply referencing the size and makeup of the group emerged: three instruments? Trio. Four instruments? Quartet (or sometimes, Trio Sonata—blast that multiplayer continuo line!). Three string instruments and a piano? Piano Quartet. Four wind instruments and one brass instrument? Woodwind Quintet. Oops. These composers had it pretty easy. Though I do imagine it must have been a little comical for audience members to argue the merits of Haydn’s 57th Symphony over those of the 69th, 72nd, 77th, 78th, and 82nd. It still is.

Abstract musical titles must have emerged not long after it was decided that it was okay for music to be about itself, without an underlying liturgical function, and with some sort of perceived affect. There must have been debates at some point later as to whether music could represent—or at least evoke—something other than itself. Hence titles like Pastorale, and eventually nicknames for pieces originally given generic titles by their composers—Sun, Pathetique, Appassionata, Jupiter, Clock, Military, Rhenish, Resurrection. Once the Romantics took over and gave us titles like “Gray Clouds,” “The Poet Speaks,” “A Frightful Experience,” and “To A Wild Rose”, all bets were off—and the range of possible titles exploded.

Nowadays, just about anything is possible. Composers still write settings of the Agnus Dei and write symphonies and piano trios and number them. Titles don’t necessarily need to be brief for commercial reasons, and there is no length limit. They run the range from the ever-popular Untitled (I wonder who would own the copyright on that one if it were possible?) and its sequel, Untitled, to La Monte Young’s The Empty Base (1991-present), including The Symmetries in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261 in Which The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped above and Including 288 Consists of The Powers of 2 Multiplied by The Primes within The Ranges of 144 to 128, 72 to 64 and 36 to 32 Which Are Symmetrical to Those Primes in Lowest Terms in The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped below and Including 224 within The Ranges 126 to 112, 63 to 56 and 31.5 to 28 with The Addition of 119 and with One of The Inclusory Optional Bases: 7; 8; 14:8; 18:14:8; 18:16:14; 18:16:14:8; 9:7:4; or The Empty Base (1991).


I have tried to come up with a brief classification scheme for the ways that composers have used titles. The margin of error is roughly 75 points, and it’s definitely a beginner’s list. The classifications below are not mutually exclusive and often overlap—indeed, the Venn diagram would look like a bubble bath. Nor do the classifications hold for every title ever devised. Hey, this isn’t a Ph.D. thesis.

1. Titles Taken from Pre-existing Texts

The most obvious examples of this kind of title are text settings that appropriate the names of the original poems or prose works. But there are also instrumental pieces that draw some portion of their inspiration from a literary work and are titled accordingly. I have encountered at least a half dozen pieces called A Certain Slant of Light (Emily Dickinson). Paul Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy (inspired by the Shakespeare play) is a well-known example, and Anthony Gatto has a violin and piano duo called The Sheltering Sky (after the Paul Bowles novel).

2. Generic Titles

These titles reference a pre-existing name for a form or genre, most often used by composers no longer living, and often let you know how many times a composer used this form before this piece. Sonata No. 1 in C major, Symphony No. 3, Fugue in G, Second Cantata, Fantasy March, Ballade, Intermezzo, Polonaise, Waltz, Song, Blues No. 4, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. [Ed. Note: Generic titles are so, well, generic, that standard usage also precludes them appearing in quotes or italics, which ought to tell you something.]

In these titles, the composer doesn’t mind making at least some casual reference to a tradition—whether it be slavish, ironic, or somewhere in between—and probably thinks that the music stands on its own without any other sort of description. (“This is my symphony, which is mine, and what it is, too.”) The composer hasn’t made a big effort to suggest how to listen to the piece other than in reference to other pieces you know—seriously or ironically.

Generic titles have the potential to cause a little grief in this age of online downloads. To wit, I was recently looking on iTunes for a recording of the Roy Harris Third Symphony and was taken to a Bernstein collection of recordings of American music. The album had three pieces called Symphony No. 3, none of them with the composer identified. If I didn’t already know how Roy Harris’s symphony goes, I wouldn’t have had a clue from the 30 second previews which one I should download.

2a. Generic Titles: Ensemble Division

These titles simply name the ensemble involved: Second Piano Trio, String Quartet, Composition for Viola and Piano, etc. Some composers use these titles as jokes—Bassoon Quintet for a solo flute piece, or Ezra Sims’s String Quartet No. 2 (1962) (written for a mixed quintet in 1975, titled so that a nonexistent piece attributed to him in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary would no longer be incorrect). Again, here the composer gives no immediate clue as to how a listener might approach the piece except in relation to previous piano trios, string quartets, etc.

2b. Generic Titles: It’s Only Music Division

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Adams’s Naïve and Sentimental Music, and Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (which, ironically, I tend to listen to in the morning) range from the generic to the adjectival clause. No assembly required.

3. Titles That Tell You About Technical or Note-Grinding Processes Used to Compose the Pieces

Spectral Study, Arrays, Dodecafonia—a title I’ve seen several times (I hang out on the East Coast)—and Whole-Tone Etude are examples of such titles. La Monte Young’s title above is such a title. Donald Martino’s Mosaics refers to a technique of generating pitches. I’ve known composers so wrapped up in the particulars of the notes that they come up with titles like Tri Tetra Hexa, for instance, to describe a piece that derives 12-tone sets first with trichords, then with tetrachords, and finally with hexachords. (Babbitt did this in his woodwind quartet, which he called Woodwind Quartet.) I don’t have problems with these titles, though sometimes I wonder if what I’m supposed to do when I listen is engage in advanced ear-training. I have yet to exclaim “Yes! The climax comes exactly where it should: when the first discrete hexachord, so long suggested but never revealed, is finally unfolded!” But, of course, I exaggerate; pieces titled this way are often very expressive and not necessarily just about the notes, despite the titles. I suppose Barber’s Essays fit here, but just barely.

4. Titles That Reference Other Titles

These titles either exactly reproduce or allude to another title, whether it’s a title of a piece of music, a piece of visual art, or something in literature. Hence Milton Babbitt’s Il Penseroso references, well, Milton (John Milton). Kyle Gann’s Bud Ran Back Out references the be-bop standard In Walked Bud. The same composer’s Nude Rolling Down an Escalator references Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Jonathan Kramer’s Notta Sonata explains itself. I find these titles inviting and disarming, as they usually show that the composer has a sense of humor. Though given a program beginning with Nude Rolling Down an Escalator, I’m not sure I would know what to expect, except maybe downward rushing scales. Which is probably a good thing. To call a piece Concerto for Orchestra nowadays, as Lutoslawski, Jennifer Higdon, and Steven Stucky have done, is to reference Bartók’s.

5. Titles That Allude to the Other Senses, Especially Sight

We are chock full of titles that reference other sensations, which quite often are described as providing the inspiration for a piece. Indeed, David Smooke’s Taste Sensation very specifically refers to such a thing, and it’s also a pun. Ross Bauer’s Chimera refers to a kind of musical motive that appears and disappears, well, chimerically. Messiaen’s Chronochromie means time colors. A great many of these titles reference a particular quality of light—a metaphor much used in music through the ages (think nocturnes and Carter’s Night Fantasies). Michael Torke’s color pieces are obvious examples. Jeffrey Mumford, who was trained as a painter, frequently titles his pieces evocatively using visual sensations in combination with other sensations: ringing fields of enveloping blue, in forests of evaporating dawns, amid the light of quickening memory, distinct echoes of glimmering daylight, within a cloudburst of echoing brightness. These titles are very engaging, as they invite a kind of metaphorical listening that can be quite satisfying.

6. Titles That Allude to Something in Nature

Lee Hyla’s Mythic Birds of Saugerties uses some bird calls from species common in upstate New York as musical materials. Messiaen similarly lets us know his affinity for bird calls in Merle Noir, Oiseaux Exotiques, and Reveil des Oiseaux, among others. Crumb’s Voice of the Whale famously imitates whale sounds. Composers have also referenced rain forests, walks on the beach, fish jumping in a stream, the cotton is high, etc. in any number of titles. Again, these titles invite a different sort of metaphorical listening which can be very welcoming.

7. Punning Titles

These titles make puns on other titles, on popular expressions, on well-known lines from poems, books, and TV shows, and are often outrageous. Milton Babbitt’s punning titles have become legendary, for instance: None But the Lonely Flute, The Joy of More Sextets (a reference to the piece’s six-part counterpoint), Around the Horn (yes, a solo horn piece), and—while we’re doing baseball jokes—Whirled Series (also a reference to where the notes come from). Eric Chasalow’s Suspicious Motives, Paul Lansky’s Idle Chatter, Scott Lindroth’s Spin Cycle, Lee Hyla’s Riff and Transfigurations are all pun titles. As Daniel Felsenfeld posited in his NMBx article on humor in music, these are all very serious pieces by very serious composers, and the funny titles seem to be meant to be disarming, to put the listener at ease before encountering some pretty challenging stuff.

8. Places and Times

Partch’s Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California is an example of a title taken from a location—in this case, the location of graffiti that is set to music. There are also composers for whom the place and/or dates where/when a piece was written become the title—think An American in Paris (Gershwin), Grand Canyon Suite (Grofé), The Dharma at Big Sur (Adams), Vermont Counterpoint (Reich), New York Notes (Wuorinen). The titles of the piano pieces recently written by Pascal Dusapin for Marilyn Nonken simply give the starting and ending dates for the composition of each one. It seems like Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, Varèse’s Amériques and Ives’s Central Park in the Dark would also fit here.

9. Other

Every list has its box for the pieces that don’t fit, and this one is no exception. Some of my favorite titles “fit” into this classification—David Lang’s Eating Living Monkeys, the aforementioned Smoking My Diploma, Eve Beglarian’s Machaut in the Machine Age, Lee Hyla’s Amnesia Variance. Let’s also put Untitled pieces in this box.


I don’t intend to answer the questions posed at the beginning of this essay (you’ll find questions for discussion in the back of your textbooks), except perhaps to bring up my own relationship to titles. I’m pretty sure I was asked to write this essay because the titles I have used myself have run the gamut; I am also often in on the titling process for the pieces my students write. In the latter case, there is a list of things I advise against: avoid plural noun titles (I cut my compositional teeth in the time of Concatenations and Gestures and Obfuscations and Ratios and, frankly, I am tired of the dizziness from rolling my eyes that much) unless they are puns or references to other titles; avoid ellipses, especially leading ellipses (it almost always comes off as mannerist and pretentious); and avoid long phrases all in lowercase unless it is a quote or pun (again, often mannerist and pretentious, and besides, they won’t fit on the spine of a CD). My best students are the ones who ignore those rules.

Like a lot of composers reading this, my titles range from serious to silly to outrageously silly. I have written (as of the posting of this essay) 72 piano etudes, almost all of which have punning titles, and several chamber pieces with similarly funny titles. All of the music is quite serious and detailed, however, so the titles hopefully have the effect of putting listeners at ease. Sometimes, though, the clever title thing backfires. Recently at a concert where the composers were expected to speak about their pieces before the performances, the moderator introduced the other composers with “let’s talk about your music.” I was introduced with “let’s talk about your titles.” I could make a down payment on a house if I had a nickel for every time someone said something, paused, and said to me, “You could use that for a title.”

Believe it or not, when I finish a piano etude, I hardly ever have a title ready. I often take long walks with my wife Beth during which we shuffle through all the puns we can think of for what the etude is “about” in order to come up with a short list (I give her full credit for the “accent” etude title: Accents of Malice). Lately friends and colleagues have been lining up to get in on the act. After I finished an etude for the left hand, people called and e-mailed with their title suggestions as if the future of civilization depended on it. There were advocates for “left” jokes: Left Bank, Left Out to Dry, Left Alone (a finalist), Left Behind, Leftenant. There were advocates for “left” expressed in another language: Sinister Motives (another finalist), Gauche Busters (got a huge number of votes, but I hated it), Yes Sinister, Sinister Cathedral. And the jockeying for titling privileges got strangely intense. Finally, more than a week after I had finished composing it (which took only four days), I got the title on my own: Ain’t Got No Right.

And the Symphony No. 4 that came to my mind was the one by Brahms.


David Rakowski was born on a Friday the 13th, and, unrelatedly, grew up in St. Albans, Vermont. He played trombone until he stopped. He has lived in a redwood forest and on the eastern shore of Maryland, and now lives in western central eastern Massachusetts, so that the commute to his job at Brandeis is 25 minutes. He and his wife Beth share a red canoe.

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