A program note enriches the experience of the audience of a live or recorded musical performance with a discussion of the context and content of the works being performed. In its strongest form, the program note will be insightful and complement the music as it’s likely to be experienced in performance.

250–1,000 words is common, though length varies by context. Any editorial constraints, such as word count, should be followed strictly to reduce the risk of undesired changes to content.

• Some organizations include a brief summary as a preface or sidebar to a longer program note.

Program notes are often organized by work, in the order of performance. Discussion of each work usually opens with contextual discussion (e.g., relevant composer biography, context of a work’s creation, etc.), followed by discussion of the work itself, concluding with remarks on the music and things to listen for in the performance.

A program note should be accessible to an educated non-specialist reader. Prioritize clarity, brevity, and a professional and engaging tone. Avoid complex sentence structures, adjectives and adverbs as a substitute for concrete details, drawn-out introductory clauses, and long lists. Excessively technical and excessively poetic language are both undesirable. As with writing in general a program note designed to engage is generally more effective than one designed to impress.

As a general practice, consider sources intended for an audience similar to audience for the program note. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, other program notes, liner notes, biographies, and other physical and digital resources are generally more useful than attempting to interpret specialist content (e.g., monographs, peer-review journal articles, etc.) for general audiences.

To ensure accuracy and reliability, use multiple independent sources to confirm the content of the program note. Two is fine, so long as one is not dependent on the other.

Consider including the most relevant of these details:

composer biography
including musical education, training and experience; notable activities and achievements;
composer remarks on the work (diaries, letters, published material, etc.)
context of creation
historical/cultural/social context of creation; details related to commission; details related to premiere or other significant performances or both; details related to publication or reception history or both

genre, style, form
unique or striking features

what to listen for generally
especially useful for unfamiliar works, early music repertoire, 20th-century and contemporary music, and repertoire with extended techniques or improvised/performer-determined content
features and notable events perceptible in performance
performance practice
especially useful for early music repertoire and repertoire with extended techniques or improvised/performer-determined content

STEP 1. Use guidelines from above (and any additional direction based on where the note will appear) to determine the length, format, and tone of the program note.

STEP 2. Use guidelines from above to determine the content you’ll include in the program note. Also consider using a score or recording or both to identify features and notable events in the music.

• To generate content from pre-existing sources, consider using the Cornell note-taking method (video 1, video 2).

STEP 3. Write the program note using guidelines from STEP 1 and content from STEP 2.

STEP 4. After a short break – at least 2 days, if possible – revise the program note using guidelines in the “Tips and Strategies” section below and the “How to Revise” section of my post on revision.

STEP 5. Ask trusted mentors and colleagues “How can I improve this?” Review their feedback and revise if necessary.

No obligations. There’s no requirement to write about every movement in the work, every song in a set, or every work on the program.

Avoid ”play-by-play“ and ”how to play.“ In the same way those “at the game” don’t need the radio broadcast, the program note reader benefits little from a discussion of events as they occur without regard for their significance (i.e., a play-by-play account). Performer-oriented discussion of the music (i.e., its technical challenges or expressive demands or both) is also generally not useful.

A voice in the ear of the listener. As a program note writer, imagine yourself as an expert whispering in the ear of the listener. Be thoughtful and deliberate about your remarks and how they might affect the reader’s experience of the music in performance.

In a program note about Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, for example, readers will take no issue with learning that the star-crossed lovers die at the end of the opera. They may not feel similarly about a program-note spoiler about the parole board’s decision in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking.

Propose (but don’t impose) personal views. The author’s perspective on the music, especially well-known repertoire, can provide useful insight for the reader. Personal views are most effective when they’re supported by concrete evidence. An author shouldn’t demand adherence to their interpretation.

Two early Beethoven advocates claimed the composer intended listeners to hear “Fate knocking at the door” at the opening of his fifth symphony. ”Da-da-da-dum.” Although Beethoven never endorsed anything remotely close to this, the personal view is sufficiently dramatic and insightful to merit repetition for more than two centuries.

No score, no problem. For works lacking a score, consider consulting a recording to identify and describe notable and striking features of the music. For works also lacking a recording, a program note that emphasizes context rather than musical content may be the only solution. Consult any available resources, including materials about the composer, musical style, circumstances of commission, first performance, and reception history, and so on. In extreme cases, discussing other works on the program may be the only solution.

Use specialist terminology, sparingly. Specialist terminology may alienate non-specialist readers. Limited use can be employed to good effect, however. Use clear and accessible language to define a specialist term that will enhance the reader’s experience with the music in performance.

Read other program notes. Review program notes for events, repertoire, and organizations similar to those for which you’re writing. Note ways these notes align with the guidance above. Be especially attentive to ways they depart from the guidance above. Is an unconventional feature something to avoid or is it something you might incorporate to good effect? Use the examples below to get started.

Below are program notes from actual concert programs.

Jan Swafford’s program note on Brahms’s violin concerto is vivid and well-suited for a non-specialist listener.

Janet E. Bedell’s program note on Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is an example of sophisticated musical discussion: organized by character (rather than chronology), detailed without using jargon or descending into a “play-by-play” account, and focused on features that are prominent in performance.

Robert Kirzinger’s program note on Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Archora illustrates clear and accessible writing about a complex contemporary composition. Notice, too, how the entire note (apart from the final paragraph) did not require consulting either a recording or score of the work.