tHiS is a p0$t ABOUT Song t!tl3s
Nobody would let me write a history of song titles. So, I wrote it here.
Occasionally, I pitch stories to other publications. Today’s post is a story that I’ve pitched and had rejected at least 10 times. As I was gearing up to pitch it again, I remembered that I publish this weekly newsletter. So, I pitched the story to myself, and it was accepted. Enjoy this so I can prove the haters wrong.
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In 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven completed his “Moonlight Sonata”, not only one of his most famous compositions but arguably one of the most famous compositions in the history of western music.
What’s interesting is Beethoven never referred to the piece as “Moonlight Sonata”. The piece’s technical designation was Piano Sonata No. 14. When performed with his Piano Sonata No. 13, he marked the pair “Sonata quasi una fantasia”, which loosely translates to “sonata almost a fantasy”. Compared to the romantic “Moonlight Sonata”, you’ll notice that these other designations have something in common. They denote the form of the piece, namely a sonata.
When looking at compositions from a few hundred years ago, their names often tell you the form or function of the piece. Bach’s Mass in Bm, for example, was something that was performed in church. By contrast, his Fugue in Cm is a composition of the fugue form. This would be like if “Forever” by Drake, Eminem, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West were called Posse Cut in Cm (i.e., named by song form) or if the Bee Gees’ “Stayin' Alive” were called Disco in Fm (i.e., named by song function).
Of course, there were pieces that had titles that did not follow this form and function heuristic, but those often had colloquial names derived from their first line. Because of that, I don’t think it’s fair to think of those titles as of the same lineage of contemporary titles, which we view as an artistic statement in and of themselves. That notion began to arise in the 1800s.
Not only were artists gaining control of their intellectual property around this time - previously it might belong to a third party, like a patron, the church, or the government - but the idea of music as autobiography was becoming common as artists became celebrities. Ted Gioia described this to me over email:
During the 1760-1770 period, musicians became celebrities … In the aftermath, music fans started viewing compositions as personal statements. So, symphonies and other works from this period start to get nicknames drawn from incidents in the composer's life. The fact that the leading musicians were operating independently from church and nobility served to amplify this shift. They could finally put their personal stamp on a work without fear of backlash or criticism.
And after 1800, things really changed. That's often given as the birth date of Romanticism, and legitimately so … From this point onward, music starts to become intensely autobiographical. Even if the composer doesn't describe a work as a personal memoir, fans are determined to impose this interpretation on to the work. Also, themes related to nature and emotion came to the forefront of Western culture. Both of these furthered the tendency to give names to musical works.
It’s around this time that people begin referring to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 as his “Moonlight Sonata”. Over the next two centuries, artists would not only take more artistic liberties with the titles of their compositions, but they would begin using informalities (e.g., “Whatcha' Gonna Do” by Nat King Cole) and odd stylizations (e.g., “@ MEH” by Playboi Carti). Of course, certain conventions remain. If the song has lyrics, the title is usually one of those lyrics, but we are far afield from compositions with names like Requiem in Dm or Piano Concerto No. 5.
I looked at every song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 since 1958 to understand how artistic expression in popular song titles has evolved. I was able to identify six kinds of stylizations or informalities that have arisen since then.