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Program Notes

Guide for Writing Program Notes

Six Elements

1. Content

High quality program notes give your audience information about any combination of the following:

  • Composer
  • Piece
  • Context 
  • Expectations
  • Interpretation 


2. Organization

Many people find it helpful to organize program notes into three sections*:

  • Brief introduction to the composer.
  • Information about the work's historical context and the circumstances surrounding its composition.
  • Description of the work itself.

*Nigel Scaife, Writing Programme Notes: A Guide for Diploma Candidates (London: Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, 2001), 7.


3. Information

Some basic questions that you might want to answer include:

  • Who wrote the composition?
    • When and where was the composer born?
    • When and where did they did (if they have)?
    • What are they best known for?
    • What is their most significant contribution to music history?
  • What is the composition? What genre is it? 
  • When was the composition written?
    • What else was going on in the composer's life at the time?
    • What else was going on in the world at the time?
  • Where was the composition first performed?
  • Why was it composed? Why was it premiered when and where it was?
  • How was it composed? 
  • How does the piece relate to 
    • Other compositions of the same genre?
    • Compositions from the same time period?
    • Compositions by the same composer?
  • Add your own questions!


‚Äč4. Details

A further level of detail might need to be added, such as: 

  • Titles of movements.
  • Structures/forms used in the piece/movements.
  • Terminology/jargon that the average listener may not know. 
  • Anything that you would like the listener to listen for during the performance.


5. Personalization

As the performer, you (should) have your own interpretation of the pieces you will be performing. You might want to comment on this interpretation, especially if it is unconventional, and how you reached your decision.

It is also acceptable to comment on any meaning that a piece might hold for you. 


6. Citations

Yes, you have to cite your sources. Chicago-style is preferred.

...the fair use of a copyrighted work...for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole;
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.*

*US Copyright Office. Circular 92, "Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code," Chapter 1, Section 107, Washington, DC: US Copyright Office, 2008. 6 March 2009.