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A Guide to Writing Programme Notes

Hamish J Hutson-Hill holds an LRSM in Clarinet Performance, an ALCM in Music Composition and is completing a Master of Arts degree in music.

What Must Be Stated in a Programme Note?

There is one chief mission that must be accomplished in a program note. This is providing background. An audience often likes to read a bit about the programme outside of the introduction you give at the start of your performance, if you decide to give one. An audience likes accurate, easy to understand information about the composer; intentions, inspirations and their life at the time of writing the piece. Successful programme notes should be detailed and informative with occasional personal insights that add interest and character to the piece of writing.

Essays on Music

Essays on Music

Programme Notes for Exam Purposes

A candidate for an exam such as a DipABRSM needs to include in their writing the following for each piece they play:

  • A paragraph dedicated to the composer; the reasons for writing the piece, who it was written for and when
  • A paragraph per movement detailing the form, texture, tonality, general melodic contour (the moods associated with it), how the instruments have been written to suit their capabilities and how they work together as an ensemble, if the piece is accompanied.

Programme notes should not be in first person, have grammatical errors or use of slang. It is a good idea to ask relatives or tutors to read through the programme notes, as they can tell you if they found it informative, interesting and easy to comprehend. For examinations, certain uses of technical language are required, however terms must either be explained or logical enough that non-musicians can inference their meanings. Overly complicated terminology is not recommended, e.g quavers/semiquavers as for ease of understanding can be described as fast/slow melodic passages instead. Terms such as exposition, modulation and tertiary are acceptable.

Remember, programme notes, whether for exams or concerts, must sound professional, informative and easy to read.

In an Exam, What Should Be in a Programme Note Rather Than Spoken?

A programme note is meant to be a general overview. In an exam, most details should come from speaking with the examiners, being as explicit and accurate as you can. Programme notes should only include brief mentions of facts, for example, this is good:

  • "Poulenc was a member of the school of modernist French composers known as 'Les Six'."

And this is not good:

  • "Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, Auric and Tailleferre together formed a group known as 'Les Six', which was a school of modernist composers active in the 20th century. 'Les Six' translates from French in to 'The Six' and is pronounced 'Ley Seece' in the standard Parisian dialect."

As you can see, the second one is overly informative and patronising, leading to deviation of the topic and becomes harder to read (disconnecting the audience from engaging to the writing style) hence rendering the writing boring.

Mention of other members of 'Les Six' should be reserved for the conversation with the examiners, where a good knowledge of related repertoire by composers within the group (i.e pieces written for the same instrument) is highly recommended to achieve a satisfactory mark for this section.

Programme Notes for Non-Exam Purposes

For a less judged event such as a concert, programme notes do not have to follow such a rigid structure, although it is advisable to use this as a basis to keep in mind what constitutes concise, easy to understand programme notes.

For an exam, programme notes must be of a certain word count. This is not necessary for a concert occasion. General trivia in a non-examined programme note is acceptable:

"Brahms was a very humorous person, who had a love of practical jokes. One time, he met up with some friends he had not seen in a while and since seeing them last had grown a beard. His friends had no idea who he was and so he proceeded to introduce himself as 'Herr Muller', to which his friends suddenly realised it was him and came to find his antics highly amusing"

This can be considered appropriate in a concert environment, as it provides the audience with appreciated humour, giving an added aspect of entertainment to the piece. This ought not be done constantly throughout, but on occasion where the writing might otherwise become boring.

I Hope This Article Helps!

It can be hard to find easy to access information on how to write good programme notes. This article has been written with the intention to provide a clearer understanding of what good programme notes should comprise of, for those who may be new to this style of writing. For any questions, or if you have programme notes for which you would like constructive criticism, please comment.

© 2018 HamishHutson-Hill