Program Note Assignment

Curious remark about life with questionable punctuation; followed by a question? Description of how music connects to the curious remark including the title of the music being played. A compound sentence involving a fact, another fact, and an additional fact, as well as a (perhaps inappropriate) use of parentheses to further describe the music. Succinct explanation of the story behind the music. Gushy statement, including a comma-separated clause, about how much the music means to the writer. Brief exclamation! Assertion about why this music matters with a pithy concluding thought.

I'm a fan of humor and wanted to inject some into an assignment on writing program notes with my students in grades 7 – 12 this past year. Writing in band class became a "necessary evil" and I wanted to make the best of it. The paragraph above is a sample I wrote of generic program notes (see a real set based on the generic one at the end of this post). A few students used it as a model for their own, but my intent wasn't to have everyone simply parrot my form. Instead, I wanted students to see that there was a form to program notes, and that certain details are nearly always included.

Before I describe what I did, here's my idea of what program notes should be. Program notes should...

  1. Tell the audience something that will help them appreciate the music more
  2. Arouse the curiosity of the reader and show why the music is worth listening to
  3. Connect the music to other relevant parts of culture

I can't stress enough how important it was for me to complete the same assignment as the students before I gave it to them. Here is the full sequence of my approach to writing program notes in band.

  • Cycle One (of two--the final concert of the year proved too busy to fit this in)
    • Show examples of good program notes and the music they were written for (from the MN High School Music Listening Contest)
    • As we listened and read the examples, we practiced picking out details
    • The more details we picked out, the easier it was to see patterns and group the details according to three categories: biographical information, context of the piece, and things to listen for in the music
    • In class, we walked through a lot of details that related to several of the pieces to be played, and students recorded them here
    • Students brought their rough drafts to class for some peer editing as well as comments from me, and then they completed a final draft
  • Cycle Two
    • After the experience of doing program notes the first time, I made a few tweaks
    • Adjustment #1 – With the middle school students, we practiced picking out relevant details and then writing sentences based on those details
    • Adjustment #2 – I took real student rough drafts, projected them on the screen, and we talked through (as a class) the strengths and weaknesses of some of their writing

Here are a couple samples from these assignments.

This guide is intended to steer you through the process of preparing program notes, so you can make your own decisions about the style and content most appropriate for your performance. 

Length: The length of program notes varies, depending on factors such as number of pieces being performed, the total length of the program, available space in the printed program, budget, and audience.  A single work, such as a sonata, song cycle, or symphony, for example, might range from 250-350 words. For a longer program with multiple works, a range of 700-1,000 words may be more appropriate. For Peabody student recitals, notes should fit on one page (approximately 400 words).

Content: Your goal is to increase your audience's understanding and enjoyment of the music you are performing. Program notes should be as well researched as any other piece of writing you produce. You should consult standard music reference works in order to write an interesting and clear summary of your piece. Include noteworthy items, such as a dedication or an excerpt of a review that was published soon after the piece’s premiere to show how the work was received at that time.

Possible talking points:
Circumstances of compositionPersonal anecdotes
First performanceCriticism
Historical contextFootnotes and bibliography
Musical styleOver-emoting
ScoringMusical examples
Things to listen for Technical terminology


Also consider your audience and gear your notes toward their level of understanding. If, for example, you are performing for a very young audience, you would want to avoid overly technical language and advanced theoretical analysis.

Style: The chart on the left illustrates proper usage of music terminology and illustrates how different authors recommend handling titles and musical terms. These rules apply to writing only; for example, there are different rules for footnotes and bibliographic citations.

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