return to program notes page

Writing Concert Program Notes:
A Guide for UWW Students
by Prof. J. Michael Allsen
January 2004
(revised March 2019)

I've been a program annotator for over 35 years—primarily for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, but also for many other orchestras and festivals.  Nobody told me how to do this, and I have more or less learned "on the gig."  Nearly all of us will end up writing notes at some point, however, so I have provided a few general guidelines.  Where appropriate, I've linked some of my own notes or other websites as examples.

What does a performer get out of writing program notes?
While the main "consumer" of program notes is the concert audience, I have found that writing notes for the works I perform deeply enriches my own playing experience.  (Though it doesn't necessarily help you play the right notes…)  Knowing the historical background certainly affects my "hearing" of the piece, but it is especially important to have studied and written about the musical form of the works I play.  I have found it absolutely thrilling, for example, to sit on stage during a performance of Brahms's Symphony No.1, and hear the overall form work itself out.  Trombonists of course get to sit and listen more than they play!

What are program notes?
A good set of program notes will do two essential things:
1)  Give the audience a sense of the work's history.  Traditionally, notes include the facts of a work's creation:  the dates of composition and first performance, and where and by whom it was first performed.  Some details of composer biography are usually appropriate.  If you're dealing with a "big name" composer, you probably don't need to deal with who they are, but rather focus on the composition of that particular piece (see, for example, the note on Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5). If it is a composer who is likely to be unfamiliar to most of the audience, however, it is perfectly appropriate to include a brief biography (see, for example, my note on a work by the American composer Jennifer Higdon).  Most contemporary composers will maintain their own website, including a bio.  Just a word of advice about composer bios however:  most contemporary American composers include long lists of awards, commissions, and groups that have performed their works—interesting to me, but too much information for your your readers.  I'm always very selective about which information I draw from composer websites.  Compare, for example, the brief Higdon bio paragraph in the note linked above with her official biography.

2)  Give the audience a sense of what to expect while hearing the piece.  My own analyses have become much less detailed in the last 30 years.  I still use technical designations for various forms—sonata form, rondo, passacaglia, etc.—but I try to be careful to define the term for my readers, or to make it apparent in the ensuing paragraph what the elements of the form are.  I think that most audience members can distinguish minor and major keys, but noting that something is modulating from F Major to C Major will be meaningless (or even offputting) to most of your readers. I therefore seldom mention specific keys and key relationships in my notes, as interesting as they might be to me as a musician.  As an annotator, I generally try to experience the piece as an interested audience member would: thus I am much more likely to listen to a recording a few times than to study a score.  Like a good "tour guide," you lay out the overall form of the piece, describe the character of various parts, and point out interesting features along the way. In some cases, the composer him/herself has given written notes on the piece.  The easy way out is simply to quote those, but many annotators will incorporate composer comments into their own writing. See, for example the note on Bernstein's Symphony No.2 ("The Age of Anxiety"), where the last two paragraphs weave together the composer's comments and my own description of the music.  Many contemporary composers will include analyses on their websites, but always think about whether or not this material is going to be useful for your readers.  Simply put, composers are not always the best describers of their own music!

Format, Length, and Style
Actually the two elements given above are a nice general outline for most program notes: start with information on the composer and the history of the piece, and work your way towards the piece itself.  See, for example, my notes for Mahler's Symphony No.8. This is a fairly long note (it's a big piece), but follows this basic format.  In the opening paragraphs I talk about Mahler's career and the significance of the eighth in his symphonies, moving more specifically to the composition, scoring, and reception of the piece  The last two paragraphs summarize what happens in the work's two large sections.

There is no set length for program notes...aside from the ones I'm assigning you to write for my class!  I know that I almost always end up writing more than my orchestras want to publish: by the time I'm finished, my notes for a kind of typical symphony (overture + concerto + symphony or other large orchestral work) are often 2500-3000 words.  I usually edit them to about around 2000 words for the printed program, which seems to be relatively standard.  This is probably still quite a bit longer than you need for a recital or a chamber music program, or a public school music concert.  Generally a page or two in the program (say 400-1000 words) is adequate.

This is not a research paper: program notes should avoid stiff and formal "academic" language.  It is not necessary to cite authors unless you are using a direct quote, though if I am summarizing a great deal of material from a single book or article, I tend to give the author an informal citation in my text.  

Keep in mind that you're writing for a group of interested and generally well-educated people (who may not know much about musical terminology) rather that for a bunch of musicians.  I try to strike a fairly friendly, conversational tone, and leave all of the musicological jargon and pomposity at home. When I refer back to notes I wrote 30+ years ago, I am often struck by how darn "important" I was trying to sound...and how unappealing that is to read!

It's just as reprehensible in program annotation as it is any other form of writing. In this age of endless stuff available on line, there is a real temptation to simply cut and paste material from several online sources, or worse yet, to simply lift someone's program notes and present them as your own.  I have caught a few occasions where someone did this to me, and I shudder to think of how many times it's happened without my knowledge. (One of my main motivations for putting up this page was reading a program note  by a UWW student that was simply copied and pasted from the first website found in a Google search.)   Bear in mind that anytime you do this, you are stealing—intellectual theft is no different than any other kind.  It is taken for granted, however, that program notes are going to be a summary of information from elsewhere in your own words, unless you're using a direct quote. This kind of writing is obviously not held to the same standard of "showing your work" as a research paper, but that doesn't excuse simply ripping off someone else's text and passing it off as your own.

Texts and Translations
I'm pretty fussy about translations of vocal texts.  "Singing" translations (i.e., those translations often included under the original text in vocal scores) are generally worthless to an audience member who really wants to make sense of what's being sung.  I try to find idiomatic English translations—that is, translations that convey the sense of the original language without worrying about rhyme or "singability."  If you're lucky, you'll find a suitable translation in the score, on a liner note, online, or in a reference book.  I think that, especially if you will be singing the work you are writing about, you should look very closely at translations, and not be afraid to puzzle out something that is idiomatic, even if it is a language you don't know well.  (Note that Google translation and other online translation sites are better than they used to be, but generally worthless in translation poetry.  your best bet is still an old-fashioned dictionary.)  As an annotator and as an audience member, I always like the format where a line-by-line translation appears next to the original text.  If printing costs allow, I usually like to provide texts for works sung in English as well.  Not to be snippy or anything, but I've been to plenty of programs where Classically-trained singers or choirs were singing English texts that might as well have been in Urdu or ancient Mesopotamian for all the sense I could make of the words.  Having the text always enriches my experience as an audience member, even if a singer's English diction is flawless.

Here are a few suggested sources of information...
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians - Your source of first resort.  Grove is the standard English-language dictionary of music, with thoroughly authoritative, and fairly up-to-date articles written by recognized experts.  Most university and larger public libraries have a copy and/or access this by way of Oxford Music Online,  Andersen Library has the 29-volume paper version, but also has the online version, which you can access from any oncampus machine, or offcampus using your UWW password and username.   [Note to non-UWW readers: Oxford Music Online is a subscription service, so don't expect to find it in a general online search: you generally have to be working in a library or associated with a campus that has a subscription.]   For more obscure composers, this is usually the easiest and most complete source of information.  For well-known composers (Mozart, Brahms, etc.) it can be a quick check on dates of composition and first performance, as well as a valuable source for the biographical background on a piece.

David Daniels, Orchestral Music: A Handbook - The standard listing of major orchestral works, and part of the working tools of of any orchestra librarian.  The latest printed edition—the fifth edition of this venerable reference work—was published in 2015, and it is also available in an online format, accessible by subscription only.  This is not a complete listing of orchestral works, but covers most works that are published and generally available, with instrumentation, duration, and sometimes with movement-listings.  The Daniels book can come in handy in several ways—e.g., figuring out which of multiple versions of a single piece you're writing about.

Composer biographies - Just cruise the ML410's in the Andersen Library!  In general, the newer the better.  There are also books specifically on the works of major composers.  I like the old BBC pocket-size guides and there are also more substantial Cambridge guides to specific works.

Liner notes - You'll of course want to listen to the piece, so take a look at the CD liner notes if you can—generally somewhat more authoritative than notes you may find at random in an online search.

Notes on the score - Some scores will include quite bit of information about the piece: sometimes a program note by the composer, or an indication of who commissioned the work and when it was first performed.  Concert Band repertoire is particularly generous in this respect—with the educational market in mind, band composers often provide quite extensive descriptions.

Published collections of program notes - Many of the finest program annotators have published collections of their notes, often covering a host of "standard" compositions.  Check out the MT125's in both the reference collection and the main stacks upstairs.  A few selected sources of notes for orchestral music are:

Online searches - Important: Though I do quite a bit of my program notes research online these days, I always consult New Grove or another authoritative source whenever possible as a "fact check." Several strategies and resources I've found handy:

Those things hanging on either side of your head  - You are a trained musician writing for an audience that is almost certainly less aware of the nuances of a composition than you are.  If you are writing about a piece that you are performing or conducting, you can seldom go wrong by discussing what you hear as interesting or significant about a composition

Comments on this page are welcome—just send me a note at