Most music students will at one time or another need to write their own program notes, but this useful skill often goes overlooked in an undergraduate curriculum. The ability to write and speak engagingly about performance and repertoire is important in every musical career I can imagine. As with anything, practice and preparation are crucial. You don’t want your opening band or choir concert during a first year teaching job to be your inaugural experience with written (or spoken) program notes. Take every opportunity you can during your college years to refine your abilities – draft program notes for studio class performances, chamber music concerts, and of course recitals. Even if your studio teachers don’t require program notes for recitals, take it upon yourself to create them. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did. Here are a few tips for writing program notes, as well as some resources to get you started.
Read! The best way to become a better writer is to read a lot (and write a lot). Read anything and everything you can about music – journal articles, recording reviews, CD liner notes, blogs, program notes from other recitals, etc. Keep mental notes of the writers you enjoy the most, and try to figure out what it is about their style that you like. Don’t worry about consciously imitating, or trying to avoid imitating, their style. Just let your brain absorb all of this information.
Find your voice. This will take some time, but eventually you won’t feel like you’re copying the language your teachers and textbooks use. You have to start somewhere, so if you like the rhythms and patterns of another author or authors, try incorporating small parts of them (without plagiarizing!) into your own writing. Your growing reading experience (see above) will tell you when things work or don’t work on the page, and you can adjust or tweak things as necessary.
Know your audience. Program notes for an informal summer recital at a church should be different than the notes for a degree recital. Are you writing for an audience composed mainly of musicians, non musicians, or a mix? Will lots of music appreciation students be attending your concert/recital? These are all questions to take into account before and during the writing process. If your studio teacher or music school has specific requirements for content or format, make sure you follow those. Ask your professors for help whenever necessary – they won’t write your notes for you, but they can give you helpful advice and let you know if what you’ve written makes sense to them.
Stick to the basics. I think program notes should have some essential information – the composer’s dates and nationality (unless widely known), a few general comments about the composer’s overall style, and how the work being performed fits, or doesn’t fit, with those trends. It’s also nice to include when and where the piece was originally performed, especially if it makes for a good story. Consult a thematic catalog if necessary to find this information. If the work is programmatic, include some background on those extra-musical associations, and any other information you think your target audience will find interesting.
Avoid jargon. Unless writing specifically for an audience of trained musicians, avoid overusing technical terms related to form, phrasing, harmony, etc. It’s best to try to put descriptions in your own terms, unless you wish to include a brief but pertinent quote from an eminent scholar or performer.
Make it personal. The audience not only wants to know something about the pieces you’re performing, but they also want to know a little bit about you. Lots of information on composers and dates can easily be found on the internet today, so your program notes should go beyond that in some way. Briefly explain what it is about the piece that inspires and provokes you, and why you think it belongs, or has remained, in the repertoire. This works for both new pieces and warhorses. If there are specific passages that you feel the audience should pay particular attention to, point those out, or even demonstrate them, making sure that you plan/practice any excerpt demonstrations in advance.
Edit/revise as often as necessary. Practice your delivery often if giving spoken notes, then record yourself and listen back to it. You can use the recording to adjust pacing and content as needed. Prepare written notes well in advance of the performance so that you have plenty of time to edit and revise, taking into account input from studio teachers and any other professors who are willing to read over your program. Save electronic and hard copies of your program notes – you’ll want to refer to them again when you program those pieces in the future.
W.W. Norton Essentials of Music: Excellent all-around site.
Classical Score: Timelines of music history.
Dolmetsch Online: Music history and theory resources.
University of Washington Music Library: Several free resources and handy research guides.
Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary: Hear pronunciations for musical terms.
Program Notes Wiki: Online collection of program notes for multiple genres.
Iowa Public Radio Pronouncing Music Dictionary
Theodore Baker, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians edited by Nicolas Slonimsky: Excellent biographical information, including many lesser known composers and musicians.
New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians: Available in print and online – a standard resource for all types of music research.
William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style: Full of excellent tips for improving your writing. The original 1918 edition is also available online.
Stephen King, On Writing: Not music-related, and definitely not PG rated, but nevertheless an excellent book on writing from one of today’s masters.