Mr. Vacation's Music World

Musical Misnomers 

...and why I’m not that fussed about them 

            It has come to my attention over the past few years that folks who are in the world of musical theater are annoyed when the recordings of songs from a musical collected into an album are referred to as a “soundtrack”. While I can understand the dislike for its inaccuracy, I doesn’t bother me as much. Why? Because the general populace uses a lot of misnomers when it comes to things having to do with music. 

            Everyone has been to a social gathering, or maybe just riding along in the car, and there are tunes playing on the radio or stereo. Suddenly, somebody’s favorite song comes on and they turn to or shout at the person closest to the playing device: “Hey, turn that up higher!” What they actually mean is to turn it up louder. “Higher” refers to pitch, not volume. 

People talk about how a song “has a great beat”. I have no research to back up this claim, but this one might be on Mr. Dick Clark and decades of American Bandstand. Clark would play the latest popular music hit and afterwards ask the young people on the show what they thought of it. Very often they would say something like “It’s got a great beat, you can really dance to it.” What they really meant is that a song has a great rhythm. A great syncopated rhythm is what makes a person want to get their booty out of a chair and go shake it on the dance floor. Beat is the steady underlying pulse. Think heartbeat. 

And then there’s my primary instrument, proper name Horn. But the word horn has been co-opted in popular American culture to mean pretty much anything you blow into. So, over the years it has come to be known as French Horn. Its origins prior to its long orchestral history are more closely tied to an English hunting horn. But English Horn was already taken. Ah, well. 

Me and my Horn…..aka French Horn 

Orchestras and concert bands and other large instrumental performing groups can be divided into sections based on instrument groupings. Woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion; these divisions help during group rehearsal and also for sectional rehearsal. When the big bands came along during the swing era, you’d have a trumpet section, trombone section, saxophone section, and the rhythm section, composed of the piano, bass, drums. When bands employed them, the guitar and vibraphone player would also fit into the rhythm section. I’ll leave it to others to decide if it’s an actual misnomer, but its somewhat humorous that rock bands call the bass player and drummer the rhythm section. If your musical ensemble only has 4-6 players, do we really need to divide it into sections? Maybe not technically a misnomer, but kind of silly. 

When I was an undergraduate, I attended a session where a jazz clinician bristled at the term fusion being used for the jazz-rock genre popularized in the early 70s. His point was that so much of Western music was created as a fusion of musical elements or genres that had come before. While factually true, I personally didn’t see the issue with applying the term to jazz-rock since it hadn’t been used to describe any previous style. 

And so I return to the idea of the soundtrack album being applied to what fans of musical theater would prefer be called by the term cast recording. The main reason I’ve heard and read is that the soundtrack album represents the preserved part of a more permanent performance, like the music from a movie. The music doesn’t change when you watch the movie again. The recording of the songs from a musical represents a snapshot of one performance and the live performances of a show can, of course, vary slightly from night to night. 

But if a person calls the recording of songs from a musical a soundtrack, it doesn’t bother me, personally. Here are the two main reasons why: 

First, the term soundtrack has been used for a lot of different kinds of recordings having to do with movies and television shows. Most often, a soundtrack album has been of hit songs that are used in a movie. The most successful examples came out at the time Footloose and The Bodyguard were box office hits. But you’ve also had soundtrack albums of orchestral scores of movies like Star Wars, and even albums that have included dialogue from a film. Sometimes you’ve had combinations of all those things. In addition, you’ve got the fact that an actual movie soundtrack is a mixing of all the elements previously mentioned, and also includes things like sound effects. 

Second, the term cast album is both broad and not inclusive. It is, of course, one specific cast and many times needs further definition. Its an original Broadway cast, or the world premiere in London cast, or sometimes an assembled-just-to-do-a-studio-recording cast. And you’ve got different elements to a live cast recording versus a studio cast recording. If it’s a live, you’ve got pretty much everything that’s in that particular show. If it’s a studio recording, lots of vamps and incidental music is eliminated. And either way, unless it’s a completely a capella show, the term cast recording ignores the fact that you’ve got other folks involved besides the singers. 

So, whether it’s volume or pitch, pulse or rhythm, proper instrument name or slang, I will mostly use the most accurate terminology. But if other people don’t, I will smile and acknowledge what I know they mean and keep moving. 


Mr. Vacation