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By zigazou76 (Own work) [CC BY 2.0]


For some time now I’ve wrestled with the question of whether or not to give the instrumental music I write a descriptive title instead of one related simply to the form of the piece and/or to the particular combination of instruments being used.  So what’s the answer?



My main objection to giving a piece a descriptive title is that in most cases such a title can only operate on one level and it will point the listener in a particular direction whereas music of course operates on many different levels and can point the listener in many different directions.  Thus the written description will necessarily provide only a very limited insight into the work and may effectively ‘pre-judge’ the listener’s individual responses.  This is important because I think that ultimately it is for the listener to determine what to make of the music and s/he will be better able to come to an independent judgment about it if the composer is not attempting to directly influence the process.



There are other objections too I think.  For instance,  for practical purposes the descriptive title will necessarily be very short so very little information will actually be imparted to the listener.   In addition, the information may not be ‘accurate’ in the sense that the listener may have a very different view of the piece to the composer.    This may apply even if the composer sets out at some length what s/he was intending the piece to represent.



A good example of music operating on different levels and of the conflict between the composer’s intentions and the listener’s responses can be found in the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony.  Although the movement does not have a descriptive title some say, quite definitively, that Mahler intended the piece as a love song to his wife and it should be played and heard as such.  Well if that is right then its use in the film ‘Death in Venice’ was entirely inappropriate and wrong.  However, I suspect that few who have seen the film would agree with this or would deny that the piece contains a significant element of melancholy; on the contrary they would most likely think that the Adagietto fitted in very well with the subject matter of the film and greatly enhanced its impact.  That doesn’t mean that the piece was not originally intended purely as a love song or that it cannot operate as such; rather, it can operate on different, even contradictory levels:  after all is that not part of the magic of music?  It seems very dogmatic (and to be selling the music short)  to assert that it can only be interpreted in one particular way.



Another objection which can be raised is that a description generally implies some kind of narrative but  not all music can be categorised or explained satisfactorily in this way.  This is particularly true of course of a lot of modern music where the emphasis is not on any easily recognisable narrative but, for instance, on particular effects.  To give descriptive titles to such works seems inappropriate.  Notwithstanding this, many composers do so and descriptions such as ‘Reflections’ or ‘Illuminations’ are often used.  I do wonder though whether they serve any useful purpose in terms of adding to the listener’s understanding of the work.



Yet another objection to providing a descriptive title to a piece is that the source of the work may be very personal to the composer and s/he may not find it easy to share very deeply felt emotions which lie at the heart of it.  Indeed, writing the piece may be the composer’s way of expressing such emotions other than through the written or the spoken word – a form of catharsis perhaps if that doesn’t sound too high-flown.



Underpinning all these objections of course is the notion that music has its own unique language and cannot adequately be described in words.  In extension of this, it is said that a composition functions  independently of its composer and falls to be interpreted by listeners in different ways at different times depending on a number of factors such as the particular circumstances of the listener and the prevailing conventions of the time.   On this basis, a descriptive title is not likely to be of much use.

This would all point to doing away with descriptive titles.  But what about the contrary arguments?



First and foremost, there is the argument that some music is so obviously programmatic in the sense that its subject matter is so obvious that it would be obtuse to suggest that it might have a different ‘meaning’.  Debussy’s La Mer and Beethoven’s  6th Symphonythe Pastoral Symphony – are good examples of this.



In relation to the Pastoral Symphony its extended title is ‘Recollections of life in the countryside‘ and each of its five movements has a particular descriptive title which makes the subject matter clear.  On listening it is equally clear that Beethoven was trying to represent the sounds of nature: for instance,  we can hear the sound of birds both in the 1st movement and very prominently at the end of the 2nd movement (Beethoven even marks the birds’ names in the score).  We can also hear and feel the rippling water at the beginning of the 3rd movement and the ferocity of the storm in the 4th movement.

So, it can’t be about anything else can it?  Well – not necessarily:  to me the work also conjures up ideas and images of beauty, elegance, joy, symmetry, endeavour  and movement as well as foreboding, violence and destruction (to name but a few).  I do not associate these exclusively with nature nor do I feel the need to do so.  However, whilst the work may be ‘about’ other things,  it seems to me to be well nigh impossible to argue that representation of nature is not at its core: it is not one of a number of possible ‘explanations’ of the piece but the prime driver of the work.  On that basis, I think that its descriptive title is appropriate.



It can also be argued that descriptive titles serve only as convenient reference points and are not intended to be conclusive interpretations of the work    They open the door to interpretation but do not close it.  So, there’s no need to get too excited about them. Whilst I can see the sense of this, one difficulty is that once a work has acquired a particular label, it is hard to lose it and the greater the passage of time, the more rigid the label becomes.  This can be problematic where the subject matter of the piece is not as obvious as it is, for example, with the Pastoral Symphony.



However, what about the very practical argument that giving a work a descriptive title makes it a lot easier to market it?  This is particularly important for someone like me who is trying to become established.  Again, I can see the sense of this although I would hesitate to use a title which was misleading – it would have to be justified in relation to the work itself.   That said, I cannot see any objection to using a title which is not actually descriptive as opposed to being simply a shorthand or made up word/phrase such as ‘XYZ’.



Another argument in favour of descriptive titles can be put in the negative: if there is to be no advance information given out about the work by the composer for fear of ‘contaminating’ the listener’s response then effectively the composer can only discuss the work with people who have already heard it.   This seems a very pedantic and precious approach to take; it also runs the risk of making the music – and the composer – seem remote.  Again,  I think that this point has a great deal of merit – perhaps the answer is that the composer can talk in general terms about the ideas or themes which provided the ‘source material’ for the work – without being too specific – with more detailed dialogue to follow once the listener has heard the piece.



So, what’s the answer?

I think that in general descriptive titles are probably best avoided because they can be misleading and are liable to interfere with the listener’s independent judgment of the work.  However, where the subject matter of the work is so obvious descriptive titles are certainly justified.  They may also be justified for marketing purposes to give an aspiring composer a better chance of getting  his/her work aired – so long as the title has some relevance to the subject matter of the piece.

Non-descriptive titles consisting of made-up words or combinations of numbers and/or figures are certainly not a problem.   It’s also very important for a composer to make his/her music as accessible as possible and with this in mind explaining the ideas which led to the creation of the work is almost always going to be a positive and helpful step.