Program Notes: FAQ

You’ve practiced and prepared for months for your recital. And then you find out, in addition to completing all the logistical details of putting together a concert—reserving the recital hall, requesting chairs and music stands, and recruiting a friend to be your accompanist’s page turner—you have to write something about the music you’ll be performing.

It may be tempting to treat your program notes as an afterthought, but they deserve care and time just like the other details of your performance. Unlike college papers, which only your classmates and professor read, your program notes will be read by everyone who comes to your recital! They may end up in family and friend’s collections of music programs as a memento of the event. Another student might model their program notes after yours. For these reasons, you want your program notes to be written well!

This blog post addresses some of the frequently asked questions concerning program notes that we have received at the Writing Center. 

What are program notes, and why should I write them?

Program notes provide information on musical works presented in a concert to enhance audience members’ experiences of the performance. You should write them because not everyone in your audience will be familiar with these pieces like you are—they may need some help in understanding what they are listening to.

Who is a program note for?

The audience for your program notes is the same as your concert-going audience. Your professors and applied music teachers might be a part of that audience, but you are not writing exclusively for them. You will likely have family and non-music major friends coming too. Write your program notes with these audience members in mind.

What components does a program note have?

There are many good ways to write a program note. If you’re not sure what format to follow, consider the following components:

  • The composer, and their composition spectrum: Some composers, like Beethoven or Brahms, might not need much introduction, but you may need to establish the musical significance lesser-known composers. You can detail who they are, what they’re known for, or even who or what influenced their musical styles. The important thing to remember is that your program notes are not a research paper. You do not have to incorporate all the facts you know about a composer; instead, choose facts that directly connect to the pieces you are playing. Yes, Béla Bartók was small and sickly as a child, but what does that have to do with any of his works that you may be performing?

  • The specific piece(s) you are playing: When was this work written? When was it first performed? What genre does it belong to? Who first performed it (or who made the work famous)? You do not need to answer all these questions, but use them as prompts to think about what things your audience should know about the work they are about to hear.

  • The distinctive musical elements these pieces contain: Now that your audience has a context for the piece they are about to hear, what should your audience listen for? Discuss key musical elements of the work in a way that will draw the listener’s attention to them. The program note is not a place to do a complete form and stylistic analysis of a work. But what components can you talk about that will draw the audience’s attention to its sound or how the work is organized?

  • As applicable, discuss challenges a work may present: One challenge may be that you’re performing an overly familiar work. Who hasn’t heard Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (op. 27, no. 2)? But many people have only heard the dreamy first movement—they haven’t heard the waltz, or the closing movement. Focus on educating your audience about the work’s unfamiliar aspects. Are you premiering a 21st century composition that you’re afraid an audience might not even like? Perhaps you can draw their attention to the work’s technical complexity, and give them something to watch for rather than listen for, such as advanced bowing techniques or quick movements from one end of the keyboard to another.

  • As applicable, provide the lyrics and a translation: If you’re a vocalist, these components will take up most of the program note’s space. Music and text go together, so it is important for your audience to understand what you are singing. If you cannot find a translation of the work, and you are not up to making a translation yourself, you can still provide a summary of what the lyrics mean.

The important thing to remember is that you do not have to “prove” to anyone that you know something in your program notes. Instead, purposefully choose facts and concepts that will help your audience appreciate the pieces you are performing. Use these questions as prompts to generate information applicable to your program.

Can I talk about my own choices as an artist? Or my own musical process?

Absolutely! What you choose to talk about depends entirely on your concert program and the objectives of your recital. If you’re a composer and the concert program consists of your music, then it is expected that you talk about your compositional choices. If you’re a performing artist, use the conversations you have had with your applied lessons instructor about the technical execution or artistic interpretation of the piece as resources for your program notes.

How long should my program notes be?

Each program note should be at least a paragraph (but two paragraphs are also fine). If it helps, aim for 100 to 300 words per program note.

Should I include citations in my program notes?

If you look at program notes from a variety of concerts, you’ll see that some include citations while others do not. It entirely depends on the program, and who is performing in it. Your ensemble director may not provide citations because he or she is the authority on that particular music—it would seem redundant (or arrogant) to cite their own published works. Or, as an artist who has prepared the piece, they can competently talk about a work’s musical style. A composer may not provide citations for the program notes because they are the authority on their own music. Performers are the most likely to include citations. In their case, providing citations is one way to demonstrate their authority as not only an artist, but also as a curator of knowledge about these works. You should follow the academic conventions you have learned for choosing and citing sources.

Where can I find examples of program notes?

Collect the program notes of the concerts you attend and perform in! Reverse-outline the notes: what does your ensemble director decide to include in his or her notes? How do your fellow students talk about their repertoire? How do the program notes for a performance major’s recital differ from a composition major’s recital? Do some of your own investigation to discover what might work best for your program and your audience.

How can the Writing Center help me with my program notes?

Our staff consists of your concert-going audience! Many of us may not be music majors (though some of us are), but we sing in community choirs, play in church worship bands, have parents or siblings who are performing musicians, or are classical music buffs just because that music tradition is awesome! Some of us may not be as familiar with Western art music, but would come to a performance if our friends or family members were in it! Ask us for our honest thoughts on your program notes, and keep our suggestions in mind when you revise them.

What other resources on program notes does the Writing Center have?

Be on the lookout for a new handout on program notes at the Writing Center! We’d also love to hear from you: What other questions do you have about program notes? Bring your questions or comments—and a draft of your program notes—to your next Writing Center appointment!

TORI DALZELL, PHD

Dr. Tori Dalzell holds a PhD in ethnomusicology (UC Riverside) and a BA in Music and English (Hollins University). She has worked with both undergraduate and graduate students in writing centers since 2012, and views writing as an integral part of professional development for any chosen field. Tori conducted her dissertation research in Nepal on a Fulbright IIE grant (2012-2013), and remains involved as an alumna in UC Riverside’s Latin American Music ensemble, which performs folk and popular music from the Andean region of South America.