April 12, 2012

Instrumental Song Titles

Steve Allen was the first interviewee I questioned about assigning titles to songs without lyrics. I felt it would be a good question for him because he had a reputation for being prolific in everything he did, and I knew that he pushed his talents to the extreme. I read a story about someone challenging him to write so many songs in so many days. He took on the challenge and did it in a public forum where he sat at a piano and continuously composed. It was a publicity stunt, and I took it with a grain of salt. If you’re a prolific writer it’s likely some of your songs are not inspired by anything in particular. The song I asked Steve about, called “Blues for Somebody,” turned out to have been written for Gus Bivona, a clarinet player who helped Steve move furniture into his new home. Steve also mentioned writing lyrics for a song called “Gravy Waltz,” which was just a title slapped on a tune. The challenge there was writing meaningful lyrics given that bizarre title.

Other times I’ve asked this question and received similar responses confirming that song titles can be nebulous — you can affix a song title just because you need one. When I wrote “Angelica,” I wanted to have a song dedicated to the town of Angelica, New York (an important part of my childhood) and this particular song didn’t have a title. So I used Angelica for that tune. But the song was not particularly inspired by the town of Angelica, nor is it particularly evocative of my memories of the time and place. Like most things I write, Angelica came out of a rhythm and a series of chords, and then I developed it from there.

One of my more recent compositions is called “The And of 4.” You could speculate about a hidden meaning in the title but it simply describes a repetitive accent on the second half of the fourth beat — “the and of four” as musicians describe it.

Béla Fleck was also questioned about song titles, and he mentioned finding titles as he went about his daily activities, and writing them down as they came to him. Once he wrote down the words “Sunset Road,” the actual name of a country road he noticed from the tour bus. He knew he could use it later as a song title. The actual song he called “Sunset Road” was not inspired by that place, but it was a convenient title to use after the tune was written and in need of identification. When you listen to the recording it seems to be a perfect fit.

Classical composers sometimes wrote program music, created to evoke an event or person — “Pictures at an Exhibition” and “Night on Bald Mountain” being perfect examples. The opposite was absolute music, compositions that didn’t have a particular psychological or emotional intent but exist simply as organized sound. The listener is free to apply any meaning or emotion they feel. Classical composers might use the generic title “air,” or “opus,” followed by a number. Many listeners are familiar with the gorgeous work by Samuel Barber entitled “Adagio for Strings.” I cannot think of another piece of music that has more emotion, but Barber’s title actually means “slow tempo for strings.” He wisely left any interpretation to the listener. A jazz analogy could be “Blues #9,” simply a new melody over the standard blues form. More than any other art form, music can exist and be meaningful without implying something specific. By the way, I just made up the title “Blues #9,” so it’s available for use.


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