5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Writing Programme Notes

Selection of sheet music with open notebook and pen for writing programme notes

Writing notes for a concert programme may seem daunting. It is a professional skill, but also required for some music performance examinations and for local amateur concerts. In this guest post, Ruth Carlyle shares her suggestions based on experience of writing programme notes for performance examinations.

1. What is the purpose of the notes?

The purpose of the programme notes will vary by context.  At a functional level, they provide the audience with details about each piece, including the composer and date. More widely, the notes tell the story of the concert: why the pieces were selected, how they link together, or where there are contrasting styles. For examinations, there will be specific criteria that need to be met and should be checked before starting to work on the notes.

2. What do the notes contain?

Programme notes inform an audience about what it is they are to hear, but may also introduce particular ways of understanding. Details for each piece include: the composer and, where appropriate, lyricist; the date of composition; and whether it is part of a longer work. Where a song is performed in a language that is not native to most of the audience, a translation is needed. Whether or not a translation should be included has to be established early, as it will need to be accounted for in the word count and in the layout. The copyright on any translation will need to be checked, which adds to preparation time. The notes also cover key features of a work that the audience may listen out for in the performance and indications of the period and style.

3. What research is needed?

Knowing about the background to a work helps you to select the key points that may be of interest to an audience.  If you are unsure how to describe a piece, it is sometimes helpful to look at notes published with music recordings to see how other people have described the work. Do not copy other people’s words, however: legally, they will be subject to copyright; and practically, they tell a different story for someone else’s concert or recording.

With the research, consider what it is that you need to know.

Sources on the composer and lyricist:

  • Biographical dictionaries (usually free online access through your local public library);
  • Biographies (available on loan from your local public library or through inter-library loan that your local library can organise);
  • Music dictionaries and encyclopaedia.

Sources on musical styles and periods:

  • Music dictionaries and encyclopaedia;
  • Journals and books on music;
  • Background notes in edited music volumes;
  • Your own experience of performance and listening to music.

Sources on the words (where appropriate):

  • Text of the full work from which an extract is taken;
  • Literary biographies;
  • Introductions to anthologies or collected volumes by that writer.

4. Where do I start with writing the programme notes?

You are likely to have a limited word count, based on criteria for an examination or the style and production costs for the programme. Knowing that you have only a few words should not stop you from starting to write. Tell the story of the programme. The story could be why the pieces have been selected, such as for a particular anniversary or on a set of themes.

Once you have introduced the story, you can start to add in the details of each piece.  You might choose to describe each piece separately, or to weave them into the story. Describe the pieces in the same order as they appear in the concert, otherwise the audience may be confused.

When you have a full draft, you can go back to edit the text to meet the word count and ensure that it is a balanced account, giving appropriate weight across the concert items.

5. How will I know whether I have produced good programme notes?

At the draft stage, ask a friend or colleague to review your text. Did it make sense to them? Did it make them want to listen to the music? Did they learn anything new or unexpected from the programme notes? 

Good programme notes should add to the enjoyment of a performance. They are not an end in themselves, but should inform an audience about what is being performed and inspire them to listen and to form their own views on the music.


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5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Writing Programme Notes

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