The Name Game

I have a hard time naming things.

Since I mainly compose instrumental music, coming up with titles for the pieces I write is especially hard. During Song-A-Day month, I have to deal with problem every day for the full 28 days. And it’s frustrating every time.

This year, however, I’ve noticed a pattern emerging; it doesn’t really make the process any easier, but it adds an unexpected side benefit that helps the whole compositional process.

When I sit down to work, I usually don’t know what I’m writing. Sometimes I begin with an idea in my head, but for the most part, I’m starting from scratch. I turn on my keyword, start up my music software, find a sound I like and start playing. As soon as I find some riff or phrase that grabs my imagination, I start working with it.

At a certain point, I have some work that I don’t want to lose, so I hit “Save”. The computer dutifully pops up a dialog box asking where on my hard disk I want to save, and, annoyingly, what I want to call the piece I’m working on. This is the moment of truth: I can’t continue until I come up with some kind of name for what I’m working on.

A sensible person would probably say that I’m putting too much pressure on myself at is point. It’s too early in the process to come up with the real name, so why not just save it as “sketch” or something like that and give it a real name when the piece is done and its intent is more clear?

That’s a perfectly valid question and I don’t have a good answer other than to say that I’m profoundly lazy. When I’ve tried that approach, I seem never to go back and rename the file, so my hard drive ends up being full of files with helpful names like “Sketch1” or “Groovy Thing” or even “2011-02-03”. This is real a drag when I’m trying to find something I wrote some time ago.

As a result, coming up with a name right on the spot is my current discipline; but it turned out to be useful in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

When searching for a name, I have to take a long moment and think about what it is that I’m writing. I try out different words and phrases until something just feels right. Once I’ve found it, something interesting happens: the music suddenly has a point of focus. The name starts to guide what I do next, and my compositional choices from that point on are guided by it.

For instance, one night I began my work session with a slow funky groove using a Rhodes sound. I added bass and drums and liked it enough to keep working with it. I hit “Save” and stared at the computer while I tried to come up with a name. This is what I had:

What is this? I thought. What is this about? I looked out my window, which faces out over East Oakland. This tune definitely had an Oakland vibe to it: funky, unassuming, and with a little bit of grit. So what then? Oakland Nights? Lights Of East Oakland?

Then an image came into my mind: an American-made early 70s sedan driven by Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Pulp Fiction. That’s when it all came together. What I had was the beginning of a theme song for a 1970s cop show set in East Oakland. That was it. From there, the title came easily: “Oaktown Vice”.

Now that I knew what I was writing, and had a workable name, I quickly knew what was going to come next. There would be a strong melody, played by a vintage-sounding lead synth. I’d need lush strings, some horns, and a clavinet. Oh yes: there would be clavinet.

It took a little time to work out the details of those broad strokes, but eventually it all came together, and I ended up really liking the result.

If I hadn’t taken the time to come up with a title, I’m not sure what direction the composition would have taken. I’m certain it would have been quite different. I’m equally certain that those extra moments I took to reflect on what I had done and give the piece a name saved me a lot of time in the long run. I ended up with focus and a clear direction that might have taken awhile for me to find otherwise. I can see this being very useful in the future.

Here’s the final version of the track. But if you’ve got suggestions for alternate names, I’m all ears.


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