How to Write Program Notes

Program notes introduce the audience to works to they might not know and to understand the works in greater depth if they are already somewhat familiar with them.

General

Often the performer is called upon to write the program notes.

Certainly, at the college level performers are expected to write the program notes. When they submit them for approval by the professor varies. (Find this out!)

Sometimes high school juniors or seniors write their own, with help from their teachers. (If you have a chance to do this, I encourage you to do it.)

Ask if there are guidelines to follow.

If you are playing all movements of a multi-movement work (sonata) or some from a collection (Bach French Suite), you must write about all movements separately.

You want to "set the stage" with some information that helps the listener to "place" the piece chronologically; and to compare it to the composer's other pieces. Then you discuss the form of the piece and how the composer uses the basics of construction and harmonic movement; and how the composer makes changes. Big changes or small ones? What are the result of these changes? In this piece? In subsequent pieces? In pieces by later composers?

Content of Program Notes

The above "consumer information" is a hook for the reader to journey with you into more detail. On to the meat of the matter.

For each movement or piece:

Overall:

Add any other personal observations made while learning the piece.

Your teacher or professor probably will have other suggestions or requirements.

Where to Find Information

If you are looking for information, below are reliable resources.

Everything you read on the Internet may not be true - remember that nobody checks that whatever someone puts up is correct. Wikipedia is a good example. The most reliable entries show references; check those out. Use Wikipedia entries with care; try to corroborate from another source.

Be careful, however, as often one source will copy directly - word for word, even! - from another site. So, you find the same material on several sites, attributed to several authors (or no author), all of which has been copied from one site and is therefore useless for purposes of corroboration. (I find my stuff all over the web without attribution and even under someone else's byline! Some sites also steal my little art icons to go along with the text!)

Another point of caution: you know nothing about the writer's credentials in the area. It could be a world-renowned expert; or it could be some kid out to do mischief. For example, I could write about astrophysics, about which I know nothing, and you wouldn't have any idea I actually knew nothing and was just "talking the walk" if you also knew nothing and were trying to find out about astrophysics!

I recommend that you go to traditional, reliable sources that are backed by excellent scholarship by proven experts and have been read and corrected by numerous other excellent scholars. If you like, start with Wikipedia and then corroborate. t

Grove's Dictionary of Music
Harvard Dictionary of Music
Baker's Dictionary of Music and Musicians
Music in Western Civilization (Lang) This is a general music history book but a good source for information to use for "setting the stage."

There are many other music history texts.

Also see specific resources for the period in question:
Music in the Middle Ages (Reese)
Music in the Renaissance (Reese)
Music in the Baroque Era (Bukofzer)
Baroque Music (Palisca)
Performance Practices in Classical Piano Music (Rosenblum)
and so on

Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature (McGrath) This is primarily a resource guide for teachers, but you can get dates and some general information from it.
Guide to the Pianist's Repertoire (Hinson) is authoritative.

Be careful, also, about introductory material in your music books. We hope that it was written by an excellent scholar (Maurice Hinson is always reliable), but sometimes we don't know who wrote it. Sometimes it's someone we've never heard of! Be particularly wary of commentary on Bach; it's better to go to Grove's.

Again, your teacher/professor will have other suggestions for resources.

copyright 2009, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.


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