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.