How to name a piece of music

22nd August 2022

Articles NMC Recordings

In this article that was originally published in our Friends Newsletter, three composers - Tansy Davies, Richard Barrett, and Richard Ayres - and Francois Hall, who designed many album covers in the NMC catalogue, delve into the process and the importance of choosing titles for music. Alongside articles like this, our quarterly Friends Newsletter is packed with behind-the-scenes updates on recordings and education projects, as well as invitations to see our work in action plus opportunities to meet composers and artists; find out more about becoming a Friend here.



Tansy Davies

I always have this idea that thinking up the title is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing a piece, but when it comes down to it, that’s not always the case. For me titles mostly come at the very end of the process - a bit like the icing on a cake. But I like to think that any new title has actually been growing in my subconscious all the while I’ve been composing the piece, and it’s just a matter of digging down deep to find it, after I finish composing the notes.

When I do arrive at the point of actively seeking the title, it always feels like a good moment to take a step back from the piece and take time out for reading and research areas that, on some level, I think the piece is about. This always leads to interesting discoveries, even if I don’t find the right title for a few days.

It’s very important not to be lazy about choosing the title, after all it’s the face of work - the part that most of the audience will come across before hearing a single sound. I think a title should carry within it some message or essence of what the music’s about; that could mean simply choosing a word just because of the way it sounds - because in the composer’s mind the sound of the word somehow resonates with the sound of the work.

Perhaps a title is an introduction that can capture the imagination and set the tone for a listening experience, or an advertisement that doubles as a poem.

The title track of my NMC album spine is indirectly named after the segmented way in which ancient fauna Trilobites are known to have grown. Although they were in fact invertebrates, some had sharp vertical spines as a form of protection. Musically the piece was made out of a string of notes that form the harmonic backbone of the piece, but the directness, look, and simplicity of the word itself were my main reasons for naming the work spine

Richard Barrett

Richard Barrett

A title lends a certain kind of image, a certain colour, to a composition even before the music is heard. In my case, just as the music is the way it is in order to encourage listeners to find their own pathways through it, perhaps differently on each hearing, and to create their own experience rather than hearing about someone else’s, a title might be thought of as evoking some kind of memorable idea but perhaps a different one for each listener, rather than telling them unequivocally what the music is ‘about’. 

A title can thus be thought of as a very brief poem, forming a connection between the world of language and the world of music. It’s an opportunity to say something about the music, however fleetingly and obliquely, which is one reason why I couldn’t imagine ever using a generic title like ‘symphony’ or ‘string quartet’ although obviously another is that I’m not attached to the forms and traditions implied by titles like that.

The choice requires as much sensitivity and depth of thought as musical composition. (This extends to deciding whether a title begins with a capital letter or is all lowercase or perhaps all capitals.) If you’re making a statement about the music it’s good to choose the words carefully, and if the statement consists of only one word that’s even more important. Sometimes it comes into being before any composing has been done, sometimes during the process, and sometimes at its end or later. I think that in the end I always know when the right one has been found, even though on finding it I might not yet know why! Often I change my mind several times during the course of work, and then eventually return to the original one.

In the past, my titles have often been literary references, especially to the work of Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan, but in recent years, this has decreasingly been the case as my range of reference has widened. I don’t believe that any music is ‘abstract’, and conversely that nothing is ‘extra-musical’.

Richard Ayers

Richard Ayres

What’s the title Richard? You will have to call it something. OK, I must call it something, I must call it something, I must call it. Ah! "Something" - I can call it that! That would be a little bit juvenile I suppose, and there is also a chance that the piece might, in reality, deserve the title, "Nothing Much about Anything at All". Best not to tempt fate …

I could call it "BANG CRASH ATOM SMASH". That would make it sound exciting, and it would perhaps attract a younger audience. It is bouncy, I use a bass guitar, and both the flutes are amplified, but it isn't exactly death metal. I might also alienate the older audience, there are many more of those, and they are the people with disposable income. 

"Fractal Transfiguration 4." No. This piece is in waltz time. Could be ironic, but no. How about, "Elegy for a Dead Child". That would certainly add an aura of profundity and tragedy. The "oompah oompah" section could be subtitled "reminiscence of innocence lost". No. This piece is far too joyful for such a gloomy title. Ah! "Ode to Joy". Richard, concentrate!

I just don't understand! Why does every piece have to have a title stuck on to it? When did this start? Mozart? Beethoven? Schumann? I bet it was someone strange like Schumann. I could Google it to make sure, or, I could just spend the time thinking up a title.

Pffff … Something about gemstones perhaps? Or colours? Ah! "Vivid Purple". No - this piece is neither vivid, nor purple. 

Ah! It is a given that any title will inevitably influence how the audience will listen to the music, so my title could describe every note in great detail, including its pitch, instrumentation, volume, whether or not it is kind to its neighbours, its breakfast preferences, its blood group. Richard, concentrate!!

Opus 48? No, too ‘museal’. Well, why not just No.48 then? A bit banal perhaps, but practical. Functional. Yes. No.48, a functional title.


Francois Hall

Just looking through some cover designs I can see that titles are sometimes an important element to my design approach, as they can often lead to an image interpreting the title. A title can also help narrow down the options and focus on just one element from the group of recordings to represent the whole feel of the disc. However, I find it much more interesting and challenging when I am able to read about the works and pull meanings and interpretations from texts by the composer.

Richard Ayres' NONcertos as a title didn’t say enough to me but listening to and reading the texts about the music helped to create the visual landscape that I used on the cover. Similarly, the title spine only made sense when reading the notes written by Tansy Davies and listening to the music - then I was able to research ideas. The cover then begins to make sense, as a whole. With Dark Matter, going through Richard Barrett's notes helped to pinpoint the themes given that it is such a large subject. It’s easy to become too engrossed, especially when learning something new and inspiring! (I have a ridiculous library of old books on random subjects that I hope may come in useful one day!) Whoever thought that Saturn emitted a sound, which can be downloaded from NASA? I didn’t! The visual interpretation appears on the cover of Saturn by Edwin Roxburgh. In this case, the title sparked the idea and went somewhere I didn’t expect to go!

The title is the signpost, from which you can go directly to your destination, or you could take the scenic route, stopping off and enjoying the scenery - which is my preferred option (especially if there are some nice pubs along the way!) 

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