“What’s in a name?” goes the famous line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Well in music, there’s a lot in the name! Listeners tend to latch on to the title of a piece or the name of a song and look for clues to how it relates to the music. To some extent, the title sways the listening experience before a note is ever heard.
Considering how important this is, how do we actually go about naming a musical composition? Traditionally, composers stuck to 2 ways to name a piece of music. The first is by describing an element of the music itself such as its form and key (for example, ‘Sonata in A major’). The second is by an extramusical suggestion of a mood, an inspiration, a dedication, and so on.
This of course, depends on whether the music is:
- Absolute (music for music’s sake without any intention of representing a picture or a story),
- Programmatic (music that is intended to depict a story or evoke a mood).
While these two categories are simple enough, there are many details we can consider when naming a piece. We can even combine these two ways.
So in this lesson, I will present you with a list of questions that will help you think about what your original pieces can be named. Then we’ll look at many great examples to see how composers and songwriters answered these questions for themselves.
Why the Name of a Piece Matters
In an interview from 1944, the American composer Aaron Copland remarked that after hearing his ballet music ‘Appalachian Spring’, many people insisted that they could hear the mountains and really sense the spring.
The thing is, though, that the composer himself had no idea that this was going to be the title of the piece. He left that up to Martha Graham, who choreographed the ballet.
The great French composer Claude Debussy was weary of this as well. The original scores of his 2 books of preludes for piano show the titles only at the end of every piece. He wanted the performer to play the music for the music’s sake without being influenced by whatever the title might mean.
12 Questions to Ask Yourself (to come up with a name for a new piece)
Here are 12 questions you can ask yourself about your piece. It’s very likely that the title of your piece is hidden in one or more answers to these questions!
With the rest of this lesson, I’ll show you where these questions came from!
- What is its form?
- What key is it in?
- If it’s part of a larger work, where does it sit?
- What instruments is it written for?
- How slow or fast is it played?
- Are there any particular instrumental techniques required to perform it?
- Does it depict a story?
- Is it inspired by nature?
- Does it honor a place (a country, a city, a village)?
- Is it dedicated to a person?
- Does it have extramusical meaning beyond the notes themselves?
- Can you sum up the mood in a word or a short phrase?
Of course, not all of these questions will have useful answers for all musical compositions. But if you’re thinking about a particular piece of yours, they should have already sparked some thinking and perhaps even helped you come up with some possibilities.
Let’s see how the great composers and songwriters answered these questions for the title of their own pieces.
Naming Musical Compositions After Musical Elements
By ‘musical elements’ I mean some feature/s that are in the music itself. The most common of these are the form, key, ensemble, instrumentation, tempo and sometimes even the technique used to perform the piece. Let’s look at some examples.
Naming by Form and Key
The term ‘musical form’ refers to how the sections are built and combined into a whole. Every era had its own established musical forms and since many of them became standard, audiences knew what to expect when pieces were named by form.
An audience knew, for example, that an orchestra is playing a serious work of about 4 movements if they’re attending a symphony, or an orchestra with a soloist if they have tickets to a concerto.
Typically, this type of title is followed by the key of a piece. Here are the most common examples:
- Symphony, for example: ‘Symphony in D minor‘ by Franck
- Suite, for example: ‘Suite in A minor’ by Telemann
- Theme and Variations, for example ‘Variations on a Theme by Haydn‘ by Brahms
- Rondo, for example ‘Rondo in D major’ by Mozart
- Requiem, for example ‘Requiem‘ by Dvorak
- Rhapsody, for example ‘Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini’ by Rachmaninov
In addition, sonata and concerto very often also indicate the instrument they’re written for.
- Sonata, for example: Violin Sonata in D major, by Handel
- Concerto, for example: Violin Concerto in E minor, by Mendelssohn
Dances are another kind of musical form. Since these were first intended as accompaniment to actual dancing, these titles also imply a certain meter, a tempo and to some extent a character.
Here are common dances that come from the 14th century. As a collection they are known as a ‘suite’ (mentioned above). The most common ones are:
Similarly, music that accompanies these dances is typically named after the dance itself:
While not strictly a dance, marches can be included here too.
Music named after these dances can also be standalone concert music without any intention to accompany dancers. Ravel’s Bolero is a popular example.
Naming a Section by its Place in the Overall Composition
Music that is just one part of several movements or big sections can be named to indicate its place within the overall work. The most common examples are:
- Overture: an orchestral piece at the beginning of a large work, for example: ‘Jubilee Overture’ by Weber
- Prelude: a short piece at the beginning of a number of pieces, for example: ‘Prelude and Fugue’ in C sharp minor by Bach
- Intermezzo: a piece of music that fits in between (bigger, more important) sections, for example ‘Cavalleria Rusticana Intermezzo’ by Mascagni
- Interlude: the same role as the intermezzo
- Finale: the final movement, or section, of a bigger work (usually a symphony, sonata or a concerto).
As their names suggest, these forms originated as part of a set of movements or individual pieces.
However, by the Romantic era (from about 1780 to 1910) composers used them as titles for standalone works as well (except for the finale which is always the last movement of a larger piece). Popular examples include the sets of preludes by Debussy, Chopin and Rachmaninov as well as sets of intermezzi by Brahms.
In popular genres, it’s not uncommon to have songs titled with ‘Parts’. A famous example is Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ with 9 parts split into two and named “Part I-V” and “Part VI-IX”.
By Instruments or Ensemble
We went through this earlier when we mentioned the Sonata and the Concerto. Typically these titles include the instrument they are written for. Sonatas and concertos exist for pretty much every common instrument (in the Western culture).
Lists of concertos and sonatas are available at imslp.org (with free scores too!)
When the music is for more than one instrument, there are two common ways to name the piece. One is by naming the instruments individually, for example:
- Sonata for Violin and Piano
- Sonata for Harp and Flute
- ’24 Preludes and Fugues for Two Guitars’ by Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Or by naming the ensemble as a group: duets, trios, quartets, quintets and so on. For example:
- ’12 Horn Duos’ by Mozart
- ‘Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano’ by Poulenc
- ‘String Quartet No. 4’ by Schoenberg
- ‘Wind Quintet’ by Nielson
By Terms for Tempo
Terms for tempo are also standard. Just like the common forms, if listeners know what Adagio or Allegro mean, than they know what to expect. We know to expect a slow piece followed by a faster one if the title says “Adagio – Allegretto” (as in many of Haydn’s symphonies for example).
The most common examples of these are the most common tempo markings. From slowest to fastest here are 5 examples, four of which mention the instruments they’re written for:
- Adagio, such as ‘Adagio for Strings’ by Barber
- Andante, such as ‘Andante in C major’ by Schubert
- Moderato, such as ‘Moderato for Cello and Piano’ by Shostakovich
- Allegro, such as ‘Introduction and Allegro for Strings’ by Elgar
- Presto, such as ‘Cantabile and Presto for Flute and Piano’ by Enescu
By Instrumental Technique
It’s not as common but there are pieces named after the technique it takes to perform them. For example:
- ‘Piano Concerto for the Left Hand’ by Ravel is written for (surprise!) the left hand
- ‘Black Keys Etude’ by Chopin is a nickname for a piece that uses the piano black keys almost entirely (for the right hand)
- ‘Pizzicato Dansée’ by Delibes (a piece from his ballet ‘Sylvia’) is played pizzicato (plucked) by the strings
- ‘Pizzicato Ostinato’ by Tchaikovsky is the subtitle of the 3rd movement of his 4th Symphony, also played pizzicato by the strings
- Etude No. 1 – Etude des Arpeggio by Villa Lobos
By Numbers: Opus or Catalogue Number
The works of famous composers are often numbered in two ways: opus number (meaning simply ‘work number’) and a catalogue of their entire life’s work.
- Mozart’s works are catalogued with a ‘K’ for Ludwig Ritter von Köchel, who compiled the works. (Example: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, K 525)
- Schubert’s works are catalogued with a ‘D’ for Otto Erich Deutsch, who compiled his music. (Example: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D 759)
- J.S. Bach’s works are numbered with BWV for ‘Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis’ (Bach work’s list). (Example: Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565)
Naming by Extramusical Suggestions
So far we discussed naming a piece by picking some aspect of the music itself. It’s often the form and the key but it could also be the instrumentation or the tempo. These titles are associated mostly with Classical music.
The other main way of naming a musical composition involves something (or someone) outside of it.
Often these are sources of inspiration (such as poems and stories), intended to evoke a mood, imitating nature, honouring a person or a place, and less commonly, remembering a particular year.
As we’ll see, these two ways are also often combined. For example, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 is also nicknamed ‘Moonlight Sonata’.
A Meaningful Word or Phrase
Instrumental music tends to be the most difficult to name. Without a concrete topic of what the piece is about (which lyrics would provide), it’s hard to choose an appropriate name. Such pieces are often named with a suggestive phrase.
These phrases can be anything but the best ones manage to reflect not only some aspect of the song’s mood but also the musician’s overall personality. Here are some great examples:
- ‘Letter from Home’ by Pat Metheny
- ‘Crystal Tears’ by Kitarō
- ‘Surfing with the Alien’ by Joe Satriani
A character piece is a short piece of music intended to evoke some particular mood and typically written for solo piano. These kinds of pieces were very popular and important in the Romantic era.
- Nocturne: invoking the night
- Impromptu: implying a freer form and an improvisatory character
- Songs without words
- Divertimento: a light, fun piece
- Ballade: a romantic piece
- Berceuse: a lullaby intended to put a baby to sleep
- Elegy: a mournful piece
Nature and its Cycles
Obviously nature is a common source of inspiration for composers and pieces titled accordingly are in the thousands. Anything in the natural world goes: a time of day, animals, the seasons, landscapes, the sea, the wind and so on and on.
- ‘The Four Seasons’ by Vivaldi
- ‘Morning Mood’ from Peer Gynt by Grieg
- ‘La Mer’ by Debussy
- ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ by Tchaikovsky
- ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ by Rimsky-Korsakov
- ‘Carnival of Animals’ by Saint-saens
Depicting a Painting, a Story, a Poem (or a Film)
Another common source of inspiration for composers are other art forms such as painting as well as stories, myths and poems. The names of these compositions are often the same name as the story or poem they depict.
Here are some popular examples:
- Schubert’s many Lieder (songs for voice and piano)
- ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ by Mussorgsky
- ‘Scheherazade’ by Rimsky-Korsakov
- ‘War Requiem’ by Britten (with poems by Wilfred Owen)
The tone poem (or ‘symphonic poem’) is an important mention here. This was invented in the romantic era as a large-scale, one movement work for orchestra and intended to depict stories.
Masterful examples include:
- ‘Mazeppa’ by Liszt (credited as the inventor of the tone poem, Liszt wrote 14 of them).
- ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ by Strauss
- ‘The Hebrides’ by Mendelssohn
- ‘Finlandia’ by Sibelius
- ‘Prélude à l’Après Midi d’un Faune’ by Debussy
Soundtracks and film music would fall into this category, literally taking their cues from the story they accompany.
Honoring Places or Imitating Cultures
It’s also common to name a piece after a place or a culture. Typically it’s for one of two reasons:
- The composer is fond of a country (their birthplace or simply a place they visited and loved),
- Or because the composer wants to imitate the music of a foreign place (normally through melody, rhythm and instrumentation).
Here are some wonderful examples titled after a country:
- ‘A Polish Requiem’ by Penderecki
- ‘A German Requiem’ by Brahms
- ‘Rondo alla Turca’ by Mozart
- ‘Spanish Overture’ by Glinka
- ‘Romanian Rhapsody’ by Enescu
- ‘Romanian Folk Dances’ by Bartók
- ‘Chinese Dance’ by Tchaikovsky
- ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’ by Liszt
- ‘Balkan Miniatures’ by Bogdanovich
- ‘Italian Symphony’ by Mendelssohn
- ‘Serenata Española’ by Malats
Dedicated to Other People
We also have plenty of examples of musical compositions dedicated to, honouring or remembering other people.
- ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’ by Ravel
- ‘Homage a Tarrega’ by Turina
- ‘Für Elise’ by Beethoven
- ‘Für Anna Maria’ by Arvo Pärt
- ‘Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak’ by Grieg
- ‘Homenaje Pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy’ by de Falla
- ‘Elegy on the Death of my Daughter Olga’ by Janacek
Honouring a Specific Year
These are not as common as anything we’ve discussed so far but examples do exist. Examples include:
- ‘Overture 1812’ by Tchaikovsky
- ‘Suite 1922 for Piano’ by Hindemith
- ‘Symphony No. 11 ‘The Year 1905” by Shostakovich
- ‘Symphony No. 14 ‘The Year 1917” by Shostakovich
Naming Conventions in the 21st Century
Naming pieces of music hasn’t changed as much in the 21st century. Our two main categories (musical or extramusical) are still as valid as ever. Composers still compose concertos, string quartets, and other known forms (even though they are altered and expanded). And we are also still inspired by nature, other art forms, places and people.
Depending on the style, there seems to be a tendency to title pieces with words that imply division or disconnection (with words such as ‘interruptions’, ‘episodes’ and ‘fragments’). Even these, however, often reflect the intended character or the form of the music itself.
- ‘Structures 1′ by Boulez
- Berio’s many ‘Sequenzas’
- ‘Elements’ by Einaudi
- ‘Fractal Miniatures’ by Roger Zare
I hope this overview of naming musical compositions is helping you organize your options. What do you think? How do you name your compositions?
Let me know in the comments below and join our Facebook community here. We’d love to have you over!