How to write boring program notes

July 28, 2018

Things to include in your program notes for maximum boredom:

  • More than a sentence (two, tops) of general biography on the composer.
  • Unremarkable facts about the piece’s structure (sonata form! key of F!).
  • A blow-by-blow description (first there is a kind of sad theme! it starts out low and soft but then it gets higher and louder!).
  • Unfounded judgments about the piece or composer (this is one of the greatest pieces in the repertoire! the composer is truly a genius!).
  • Explanation (excuses and/or bragging) about how difficult the piece is to play, or inside baseball about playing technique (this piece goes way up into the third octave! the performer has to use triple-tonguing in this one spot!).
  • Show-offy or obscure terminology, especially if it’s not part of your usual vocabulary and there’s a chance you are using it wrong.
  • Length greater than a slow reader can get through in the breaks between pieces.

But if you prefer program notes that are less boring, I guess you could try these:

  • Stick mostly to biographical information that relates specifically to the piece being performed.
  • Stick mostly to language and content that is accessible to someone who is new to this kind of music and nervous that they won’t get it.
  • If you must describe the piece to your audience, imagine you are writing program notes for a movie instead. Don’t give away the ending or the celebrity cameos or the plot twist, and don’t give a scene-by-scene breakdown. Give just enough to pique their interest.
  • If the piece itself is likely to be challenging or inaccessible to your audience, give them a sense for what is interesting about it. (For example, explain in two or three simple sentences about 12-tone serialism or microtonality or minimalism.)

If you’re a student writing program notes as an assignment, you might have to hit a certain target length, include specific information, cite sources, etc. If you’re a teacher assigning those things, consider that maybe what you really wanted was a book report or a theory paper instead.

Generally, program notes should give an intelligent but not necessarily musically-trained audience a few things to help them enjoy the performance more, without feeling like homework. Be ruthless about trimming away anything that doesn’t contribute to that, and don’t be afraid of brevity.

Comments

  1. Steven Hugley

    Do you feel that all program notes should be handled in this manner? One would think that if the performer(s) were writing program notes for a conference or competition, where people tend to be more musically literate, that the program notes could be a little deeper. What is your opinion?
    Thanks!

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      I think it’s fine to tailor notes to such a specialized audience, but if the event is open to the public too then I would still write for a public readership.

      Reply

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