Songs, books, poems, short stories, albums, symphonies, exhibitions, and more . . . When should you use italics, and when quote marks?
Italics are used for the titles of:
• music albums
• novels, plays and anthologies
• journals and newspapers
• movies and TV series/programmes
• individual works of art
• substantially long poems, such as epics
Roman type, with quote marks, serves for the titles of:
• poems (of more standard length), and also first lines of poems
• short stories
• chapters in books
• articles in newspapers and journals
• individual episodes of TV series
Here are some examples . . .
1) Song title: ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ takes up side four of Blonde on Blonde.
2) Abbreviated song title: Mind you, ‘Sad Eyed Lady’ is by no means Dylan’s longest song.
3) Title of short/standard poem: Emily Dickinson wrote ‘Tried always and Condemned by thee’ on the back of an envelope.
4) Title of long/epic poem: Milton, now blind, dictated Paradise Lost to his daughters and aides.
5) TV episode/series title: ‘Purgatory’ (season 1, episode 1) introduces the key players in Wynonna Earp.
6) Newspaper title, mid-sentence: Do you read the Sun or the Financial Times? And how about Le Monde?
7) Newspaper title, at start of sentence: The Sun caters to its readers’ tastes and views.
8) Art work, and newspaper title: Michelangelo’s David features in the cheeky article ‘“It took genius to chisel these buttocks” – the top ten bottoms in art, chosen by our critic’ (Guardian, 23 July 2020).
9) Art work and exhibition title: The queue for the Mona Lisa was so long that I gave up and went instead to see Joan Miró: The Colour of my Dreams at the Grand Palais.
. . . and here are some random details worth drawing out.
• Notice in 1 and 2 that you can shorten a long title, so long as you’re elegant about it. (Who, after all, uses the full title of Ziggy Stardust?) And you should obey the punctuation of the original – however tempting it is to hyphenate ‘Sad Eyed’ or lowercase ‘Of The’, or to mess with Emily’s capitals in 3.
• Paradise Lost (4) is an example of a longer poem that takes italics. See also Homer’s Iliad, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, etc.
• In 6–8, you’ll see that in normal prose newspaper titles lose their article, unless they kick off a sentence or are in a foreign language. You can drop an article, too, if the syntax calls for it; for instance, ‘another long poem is Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is more fluent than ‘Coleridge’s The Rime . . .’. Articles that form part of newspaper/journal titles are also dropped in citations, as in 8 and the following:
Knols, B. G. (1996). ‘On human odour, malaria mosquitoes, and limburger cheese’. Lancet 348(9037): 1322.
• In 8, too, note the use of nested quote marks when the title of a published paper or article already contains quote marks.
• In 9, Mona Lisa correctly appears in roman type because it’s not the official title of the mysterious lady portrait. This rule is, however, frequently flouted. The Miró exhibition, meanwhile, is set in italics.
The titling of classical works is, like the music itself, fiendishly complicated and I don’t pretend to understand it, but I shall attempt a brief summary.
You can refer to a work by its name, if it has one:
• Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is a rollicking suite of poetry set to music.
• Handel’s Elijah is an oratorio outlining the life of the prophet.
You can refer to a work by its musical form:
• Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor; his Second Symphony
Some works have acquired a nickname of sorts:
• Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 was later dubbed the Emperor Concerto.
• Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, titled by the composer ‘Quasi una fantasia’, is popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata.
For further clarification, I recommend you try The Chicago Manual of Style.