Standardization of classical work names etc

Many works of classical vocal music, especially from earlier periods, are known simply by the first few words of their respective texts. For instance, I have noticed that the MB “work” entries for Bach’s cantatas have names of the form: Kantate, BWV 131 “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir.” Apart from the minor quibble that Bach himself rarely used the Italian term “cantata” to describe such works (and never, to my knowledge, the Germanized form “Kantate”), this seems as sensible a choice as any. However, the following alternatives strike me as equally consistent with the Classical Style Guide:

  • Cantata, BWV 131 “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir”
  • Kantate “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir,” BWV 131
  • Cantata “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir,” BWV 131
  • “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir,” BWV 131
  • Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, BWV 131
  • and so on . . .

In many cases, there is also the related question about how many words should be included in this sort of title (e.g., “Aus der Tiefen” vs. “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir”) and whether or not archaic/non-standard spelling should be retained (e.g., “Tieffen” for the more usual “Tiefen”).

So, that said, here are my questions:

  1. Given that the CSG seems to be agnostic to such differences, does the MB community have any “unwritten” rules or guidelines that might cause one or another form to be preferred?
  2. Should any attempt at “standardization” be made? (For example, should the above-mentioned format for Bach’s cantatas be applied to similar compositions by Bach’s contemporaries?)
  3. How important is it to be consistent about title format between parent and daughter works (e.g., the MB entries for the individual movements of BWV 131)?

I get the impression that there has been a long conversation about these and related issues that has played out over many years, but I can’t seem to find any succinct statement of the current consensus - if there is one.

P.S. I should clarify also that I am asking this question as a newcomer who is curious (and slightly confused) about established “best practices.” I am not trying to advocate for any particular way of doing things (or start a fight)!


Welcome to MusicBrainz, Peter! It is great to hear from another contributor who is interested in getting the data right about music from the “classical” (Western European art music) tradition.

You make good points about the different ways to lay out the elements in the Name string of the Work entity for the BWV 131 composition. My responses? The present Name string is quite possibly all wrong. And there is not much point to coming up with a standard way to sequence all those elements.

Neither Style/Classical/Work nor regular Style/Work specify what should go into the Name string of Work entity. But they do refer to the Documentation of the Work entity, and that does specify a standard for the Name string:

The canonical title of the work, expressed in the language it was originally written.

So we have a musicology question: what is the “canonical title” of this Bach work, in its original German? (The framing of the question expects a single canonical title to exist. There are probably works that frustrate this expectation.) The present Name string, ‘Kantate, BWV 131 “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir”’, is maybe not canonical. It was added ten years ago, and the “canonical name” standard is older. Any Bach scholars or musicologists want to weigh in?

But also, let’s keep the stakes low. The Name is a character string, and it should not be used as a bag to hold all kinds of data fields describing the work. The “BWV 131” number is captured in the Relation between this work and the BWV collection (a Work entity). That it is a “Cantata” is captured in the Type field. The value in the Type field is part of a controlled vocabulary, and so software can present translations of it to readers. So the MusicBrainz data model has other places to store these elements. It is not important that they be stuffed into the Name string. If they are stuffed, the order does not matter much.

The most important name for this work is work/84908ad1-58f3-4c36-9a86-165ea06fe11d. This is the MBID, a unique identifier for the abstract concept of this musical composition, whatever name we may label it with and whatever attributes we may apply to it. It is important that every Recording of a performance of this work links to that MBID, rather than another MBID mistakenly created for the same work. That way, if the Bach scholars decide to improve the string in the Name field in the future, every Recording will be linked to the new Name string. And software can look up that MBID to get all the other elements related to this Work.


Thanks very much for your detailed reply, Jim! Your advice about prioritizing the relationship data makes sense to me. One point of clarification: does the MB data model allow multiple works by the same composer to have the same Name string? Assuming that this is not a problem, then I am very much on board with the strategy of not relying too heavily on the Name string for disambiguation.

Nevertheless, I can see how some people might find value in having key pieces of disambiguating info (such as catalog number or work type) included in the Name string to facilitate lookup and prevent mistakes. Bach, for instance, wrote many works based on the chorale “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” and therefore sharing that name but differing with respect to genre (cantata vs chorale prelude) and BWV number. Indeed, it is common (in my experience) for musicians and scholars to use the BWV numbers as de facto work names for precisely this reason. However, I don’t think this should be too much of a problem provided that people (and software) are not overly reliant on the Name string for identifying works.

Yes. The two entries will have different MBIDs, of course, because those IDs are universally unique.

Consider an analogy: the Artist entity has a Name field, and there are often cases where multiple Artists have the same Name string. It is not very different in the case of Works.

The standard of making the Name string be the “canonical name” of a work is a way of embracing musicological consensus on what identifiers to include in the Name string.

The MusicBrainz data model also contains a Disambiguation string. This can be used for disambiguation too! Composer names, BWV numbers, etc. all could be tossed in here if helpful.