Name that tune – any old words will do

Chris JonesI thought it might be time to revisit the subject of naming instrumentals because I’ve discovered that musicians are still struggling with this task.

The most recent example is on our own CD getting set for release this summer (here’s where a crass, self-promoting type would say that pre-orders started yesterday with two downloadable songs and a video release; fortunately I’m not that kind of person, so I won’t even bring it up). Ned Luberecki wrote a tune for the album, and long after we recorded it, in fact well after it was mixed and mastered, Ned was still wrestling with the name.

In the end (the “end” being about 3 seconds before the CD went to press) he settled on Bowties Are Cool. This is an inside reference that will be understood by banjo geeks and/or fans of the long-running British sci-fi series Dr. Who. The rest of us will merely think it’s a misguided fashion statement. I like the tune, and now I like the name too.

Ned is not the only musician to freeze when confronted with the naming of a tune, and I have to confess that this kind of indecision baffles me. Can’t you name an instrumental anything? Tony Rice’s Plastic Banana or Tony Trischka’s A Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas easily prove that point. Even people that aren’t named Tony come up with some odd ones.

It’s also completely unnecessary for the name to fit the feel or musical character of the tune. Plastic Banana, for example, has a sophisticated Dawg-ish sound, which to my ears doesn’t suggest a “plastic banana” at all. I could possibly have accepted “Plastic Strawberry” or “Plastic Guava” as a title.

I realize that we’ve covered this subject to some extent before, but I’m feeling now that the information wasn’t really absorbed by the instrumental-writing readers at the time. Since that time, I’ve also devised a very handy formula for naming a tune, which should end any indecision on your part that might someday lead to a delayed record release.

There are some time-honored instrumental-naming procedures in bluegrass music. We need look no further than Bill Monroe himself, who often named tunes after his geographical location at the time that he wrote them, e.g. Tallahassee or Road to Columbus.

Our mandolin player, Mark Stoffel, also wrote a tune for the album. He was quite a bit more prompt with his tune-naming, having come up with a title while driving to the studio. I had to assist him, though, otherwise he might have been in Ned’s position too. I did this by looking at the first road sign I saw, which announced the number of miles to Shelby, NC. The tune is now called Shelby 8. That does have a nice Earl Scruggs tie-in, and Mark had written the tune near Shelby, but it could just as easily been called “Marion 11” and it would have worked just as well.

Needless to say, I didn’t expend a ton of creative energy on this. It’s simply another handy and popular method of naming a tune: looking at a road sign. Entire bands have been named this way, Newfound Road being one that comes to mind. There was also the very popular band, “Roadwork Next 15 Miles.”

It’s not necessary for you to restrict yourself to the road, though. Just look around you, wherever you happen to be, and write down the first thing or two you see, whether it’s words on a sign, objects, or natural phenomena (if this is how A Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas was named, I’m going to be worried).

I’m in an airport right now, and without even moving I can come up with the following instrumental titles:

  • “Nectar Express”
  • “Up-time”
  • “Mobile Special”
  • “Gate 75B”

Simple enough, right? And yet, I know there’s a percentage of musicians out there who would really feel better if this could be boiled down to some kind of naming formula, similar to the band-naming kit I offered here a few years ago. These are the musicians who need lottery numbers and passwords generated for them, and that’s okay. I sympathize, and after a post-Bean Blossom late night of rigorous calculation and research (or, if I’m honest, five minutes of thought while watching The Late Show), I think I’ve come up with something pretty foolproof.

Most often, instrumentals require only one or two words, though more are fine. The Old Grey Mare Came Tearing Out of the Wilderness (recorded by Bill Monroe) is on the long side, but once you use this system, you can always add words (or old grey mares) if you want. At least you’ll have something.

Here’s how it works:

You’ll work with words from two columns, “Column A” and “Column B” (and yes, I came up with those column names myself). Simply combine a word from Column A with a word from Column B and you’ll have your tune name. If you prefer a one-word name, simply choose one word from one of the two columns:

Column A:

Any word in the English language or any other language

Column B:

Any other word in the English language or any other language

There’s the system in its entirety. You’ve just named your tune.

Remember that you can always add a third word, like “breakdown,” “reel,” “hornpipe” (whether or not it is one), “waltz” (best applied to an actual waltz, but it becomes a nice conversation piece if it isn’t), “rag,” “shuffle,” “special,” “blues,” “polka,” or if you’re feeling lofty, “fugue,” “symphony,” or “croissant.”

“Thing” would probably be fine too.