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program notes for 'in the middle, somewhat ele...

program notes for 'in the middle, somewhat elevated' (Photo credit: stevendamron)

Do you write program notes with ease?

Do you have a process that works?

Here are a few ideas that might help:

Set limits

Remember when you wrote stories in grade school? Most of the time, the teacher provided topic suggestions. Those guidelines helped us find a way to start writing.

Don’t just stare at a blank screen! You’ll be there for hours!

Write for the people in your audience

When you write with people in mind, your notes become friendly and compelling. You are no longer engaged in something that isn’t fun.

Remember who you’re writing for!  Unless your notes are to be submitted to your academic department to fulfill a degree requirement, “insider” jargon needs to be eliminated.

Don’t try to be perfect

You can play around from program to program, noticing the results.  Are you getting the type of feedback you thought you might hear? Are audience members approaching you to comment or ask questions? Over time, you can work on your approach.

Be interesting, maybe even funny

People will appreciate your efforts to be informative without sounding like a history book. Use words that non-musicians can understand. You can always introduce a new term or two. Don’t make people look anything up just so they can understand your notes.

Be brief

Have you ever been to a major concert where the performer’s bio is so long you stopped reading? I have. No matter how accomplished you are or how much knowledge you have, don’t include every last detail!


When I perform Debussy’s “Children’s Corner,” I include 2-or 3-line stories about each piece in the program. Some information is from the score; some of it I made up.

In music commentary for the church bulletin, I look for the most interesting part of each composer’s biography as it might relate to the congregation. Next Sunday’s anthem was written by a composer who was born in Maine and lived in the East throughout his life. Since the church is in Massachusetts, people will be happy to see that.

In addition, our anthem composer wrote a Sunday School song that everyone sang when they were kids. When people read that, they will feel like they almost know him! That’s the goal, to remove him from the obscurity of the encyclopedia and the picture of the man with the long beard from the 1800’s.

The postlude this week is written as a canon with an ostinato bass. As most people are likely unfamiliar with the word “ostinato,” my comments explain that the first few notes of the tune are repeated to form exactly that. Using the term without explanation would be a turn-off.

Should I have a performance in an academic situation, my notes would be somewhat more formal. But I would still avoid being too dry and too lengthy.

Still not sure?

Read your notes aloud. Find someone to read them to. If that person has questions, that will help you to simplify your writing (without talking down to your audience).

What do you consider when writing program notes?

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!


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August 2011 review by pianist Robert W. Oliver

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