This is a short guide I wrote for my students at UCF. I’m putting it here mostly so I can link to it. I’d also appreciate any feedback.
Program notes are challenging for everyone. There are lots of reasons you might struggle to write them.
- You’ve already written the whole piece. Isn’t that enough? I mean, you wrote a second bassoon part!
- Your music is a perfect snowflake that speaks for itself.
- You’ve spent years learning to create things out of sound, not words.
Despite these challenges, writing a good program note for each piece is an important way of relating to the audience that you care about their experience listening to your music. After all, program notes are not a prerequisite course to attending a concert. You should expect that many—if not most—of those hearing your music will not read them. However, a well crafted bit of prose can help a curious listener to better understand you as a composer, you as a person, your music, and maybe even music generally. Here are a few things to keep in mind when composing your program notes.
Consider the Audience
Some people at a concert might have extensive training in music theory. Some of them may be music history buffs. Some may have extensive collections of Milton Babbitt records, while some others have extensive collections of Kenny Chesney tour posters. If they’re in the room when your music is played, you have to assume that they are thoughtful and curious, and that’s about all you can assume. Describe your music in terms that are precise, yet that can be easily understood. This is a difficult balance to strike. Consider this paragraph by Alex Ross describing Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings:
The strings begin with a “natural” open fifth on E and B, which pulses weirdly off the beat. The horn starts on the note G-sharp, forming a clean E-major triad, then falls to a G-natural, darkening the harmony to minor—a heart-sinking effect of a kind that appears often in Schubert and Mahler. The horn spirals through a circuitous, spasmodic pattern, creeping along in close semitone intervals and then leaping by fourths or fifths. The tenor recites the Blake text in the space of only eight bars, repeating the major-to-minor, light-to-dark shading of the opening. Afterward, the horn reprises its solo, and at the very end the first two notes are played in reverse order, G-natural to G-sharp. Thus, the piece closes in E major. But it is hardly an optimistic resolution; it is the worm’s victory. Britten had discovered one of the core techniques of his dramatic language, the use of simple means to suggest fathomless depths.
Ross uses some jargon, but always shaped by some non-technical description. Semitone intervals are “creeping along”, while fourths and fifths are “spasmodic” and “leaping”. Remember you aren’t writing a theory dissertation on your own music. Your program notes should find a welcoming middle ground that communicates to novices and experts.
Write What You Know
You don’t need to invent things to make an interesting program note. Some composers are infamous for word-salads of hand-wavy gibberish. Don’t be like those composers. Instead, tell us something that you as the composer know that we as the audience don’t. Think about answering the questions you might ask of the composer of a work you really enjoy. This might be why you decided to write for this particular medium, what the title means to you, anything interesting that came up during the process, or an experience you had working with the performer, commissioning party, conductor, or librettist.
Be a Tour Guide
Invite us into your music and show us around a bit. You have some interesting musical ideas here, and we’ll have more enjoyment and appreciation if we understand clearly what those ideas are. Tell the audience what specific ideas they could listen to in the piece that might help them to understand how the work moves from beginning to middle to end: this could be the main motivic ideas, the texture and orchestration ideas, the relationship between the text and the pitch, or the way different rhythmic or contrapuntal ideas interact with one another. This is a dangerous and slipperly slope, though. Nobody wants to read a play-by-play of the baseball game they’re about to watch. Without spoiling any surprises, tell us in the audience what we sounds we might listen for that will help us to follow along as the piece unfolds. Always remember that you spent more time with this music than anybody, and the audience is likely to only hear it this one time, so it’s up to you to help them get the most out of that one hearing.
Writing a program note can often turn out to be as challenging as—or sometimes more challenging than—writing the piece of music they accompany. However, a good program note can enlighten your audience and get them even more excited to hear your music. It’s also excellent practice for talking about your music, because it gives you some practice in putting together a coherent set of thoughts that you can use when speaking with listeners, performers, conductors, and friends. Communicating effectively about music is one way you can stand out among the many immensely skilled and creative musicians.