Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Writing Effective Program Notes

In four weeks my studio will hold the first concert of the year. As well as memorising & polishing repertoire and refreshing concert etiquette, my students are currently in the midst of preparing program notes. This is a particularly difficult task for students, and I believe that it is vital that students are able to articulate their thoughts about music elegantly and intelligently, using appropriate musical language.

My top five hints for writing effective program notes are:

1. Program Notes should be concise.

There’s nothing worse than a program note that takes longer to read than the duration of the piece itself. A program note should be able to be scanned quickly in the change over time between performers and should not take your attention away from listening to the piece.

2. Program Notes should be able to be read and understood by everyone.

A bar-by-bar analysis of repertoire never makes for interesting reading, and often alienates the majority of the audience who have little or no musical training. A good writer should be able to articulate detailed concepts in general terms.

3. Explain the context of the work.

From what time, place, culture or trend did this piece emerge? Who were the precursors of the composer, who were their contemporaries, and who built on their traditions?

4. Provide a ‘hook’.

Give your audience one or two interesting facts about the work that gets their attention. This could be an anecdote from the premiere, or a quote from a review, or perhaps a story about the composer’s life.

5. What should I listen for?

Point the audience in the direction of one or two interesting parts of the piece that they can listen for. It might be a change of mood or the theme being passed from one instrument to another. This will instantly engage the listener in the performance, as they feel confident to navigate around the piece.

If you have hints for helping students to write effective program notes please leave a comment below.

About the Author

Nicole Murphy
Nicole Murphy is a pianist and composer residing in Queensland, Australia. She has been teaching both piano and composition privately and in schools for over 8 years, with students currently ranging in age from four years to eighty-five years. She holds a Bachelor of Music (Honours Class I) from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music and is currently working towards a Masters of Music. As a freela... [Read more]

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