Thomas Stevens

Favorite Misnomers

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Favorite Misnomers: An Andy Rooney Moment

(The Quotables pages resume following an hiatus of five months required to attend to some teaching, publishing, and other business-related commitments........)

Quotable: “I suppose there is a little Andy Rooney in all of us." - Larry King, well-known American radio and TV talk show host.

Every profession has nonsensical terminology and traditions worthy of becoming Andy Rooney subjects. There are a couple of favorites from the music world that would fit into this category, filed here under the general heading “Favorite Misnomers.”

From the lexicon of classical chamber music comes the designation “piano quintet,” which, contrary to the literal definition of the term, does not refer to a quintet of five pianos or pianists; it means string quartet with piano! The term dates from the European classical period and is still used by today’s composers, as are some other similarly deceptive traditional instrumentation descriptions. In the case of brass quintets, for example, there are two types: “tuba quintets” and “trombone quintets.” The tuba and trombone designations refer to the fact the quintets share the common instrumentation of two trumpets, horn, and trombone, but that the fifth and lowest voice in each group is either a tuba or a trombone. The terms do not denote quintets of tubas or trombones, and such nonsensical traditional descriptive terminology has led to some misunderstandings in the modern world of chamber music, where there could indeed be groups like piano quintets and trombone quintets consisting of five of those specific instruments. A few years ago I wrote four little encore pieces for a tuba quartet consisting of four tuba players. The published version carries the title “for tuba quartet,” but the promotional materials clearly state that the score calls for four tubas, probably to avoid any confusion. In this instance, however, the formal designation and publisher's clarification proved to be of little consequence because the first public performance of the little tuba pieces was by a saxophone quartet, or, stated more precisely, a quartet of saxophones, and its second public outing was a performance by four bassoon players at a regional symphony orchestra fundraising event (I’ll bet that generated some mighty big donations)!

Another favorite misnomer from music world terminology is “rhythm changes,” which, as jazz musicians and aficionados are keenly aware, refers neither to rhythm nor changing anything. Indeed, due to reasons for which there are varied explanations/opinions among cognoscenti, during the formative years of the modern jazz movement (ca. 1940s-50s) many jazz musicians wrote “compositions” that were, in reality, “melodic [or otherwise] lines ” constructed over the basic (often enhanced) harmonic chord progressions (and song structures), the so-called “chord changes,” of well-known popular tunes. These compositions were called, in the parlance of the jazz world, “originals.” Among the most popular chord changes used for such endeavors were those of George Gershwin’s classic from the 1920s, “I Got Rhythm,” the underlying harmonic and song form structure (AABA') of which became the basis for literally hundreds of jazz originals. (Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop classic, “Anthropology” was based on “rhythm changes.”) The basic structure of another popular tune from the 1920s, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” was also a popular choice of jazz composers, but, oddly enough, while even in these (post) modern times one still occasionally hears references to “rhythm changes,” one never hears similar references to the S.G.B. changes (for some inexplicable reason, "Georgia changes" simply doesn't sound quite right) or the titles of any of the other popular tunes used in such a context.

One supposes it is because the terms "Rhythm Changes" and "Piano Quintet," have certain, almost clichéd, super-cool sounding "rings" to them (in spite of the fact they represent total gibberish) that they have endured.