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Music: Writing Program Notes

A guide for students who are writing program notes for their recitals.

Parts of Your Program Notes

Make sure to include the following for each piece:

  • The full title with appropriate key, opus numbers, catalog numbers, other numbers, etc.
  • The date of composition if you can find it
  • Movements or sections to be performed

The rules for titles are below (credit Linda Fairtile, Preparing a Concert Program):

Determining the correct title of a musical composition can be tricky. Below are some general guidelines. You can get additional help by contacting the music librarian.

  • If a title is based on the work's genre or form (ex: Sonata, Nocturne, Prelude, Rhapsody, etc.), use the following examples as a guide. Note the use of roman type and the specific application of upper and lower case:

                                            Etude in E Major, op. 10, no. 3       

                                           Sonata No. 13 in B-flat Major, K. 333

  • If the work has a well-known nickname, add this to the end in quotes and parentheses:

            Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, op. 27, no. 2 ("Moonlight")

  • If a title is unique, it is usually given in the original language, in italics. Be sure to observe the capitalization rules of the original language and include any required diacritical markings:

                  Lieder ohne Worte                                    Don Quichotte à Dulcinée

                  Children's Corner (although Debussy was French, he titled this work in English)

  • If you are performing a piece with separate movements, give the main title on one line and list the movement(s) that you are performing on additional, indented lines. Foreign movement titles are italicized.

           Le Tombeau de Couperin
                Prélude
                Forlane
                Toccata
     
  • For a multi-movement piece without actual movement titles, it's customary to use the tempo markings as default titles.  Foreign tempo words are italicized.

          Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano
                 Allegretto ben moderato
                 Allegro
                 Ben moderato: Recitative-Fantasia
                 Allegretto poco mosso
  • If you are performing one or more songs from a cycle, give the title of the cycle on one line and list the song(s) that you are performing on additional, indented lines. In this case, although the name of the cycle is italicized, the titles of individual songs are not.

           Frauenliebe und -leben, op. 42
                Seit ich ihn gesehen
                Er, der Herrlichste von Allen
     
  • If you are singing a selection from an opera, oratorio, cantata, musical, etc., give the title of the main work (in italics) on one line and the name of the aria/duet/song (in roman) on the next line:

          L'incoronazione di Poppea
                Pur ti miro
     
  • Jazz or popular works are listed in standard title format:

          Well, You Needn't

          Foggy Mountain Breakdown

For each piece you play, you'll need to include the name and birth/death dates of the composer(s). In the narrative portion of your program note, you might want to include follow details about the composer(s).

  • When and where the composer lived
  • What historical or personal events influenced the composition?
  • How well-known is this particular piece?
  • What relationship the composer had with other composers of his/her time and how that might have influenced the piece

Some responses to common challenges for adding composer information are below (credit Linda Fairtile, Preparing a Concert Program):

  • My composer is still alive.

           Use the letter "b" followed by a period and space (the abbreviation for "born") and
            his or her birth year: (b. 1957)

  • I don't know if my composer is still alive.

           Try some of these resources: Music SackAll Music GuideWorldCat

  • Different sources give different dates for my composer.

           Go with the source that is the most reliable (library reference book or database
           over a website, unless it's clearly "official").  When in doubt, check with Mandi.

  • My piece is traditional; it has no composer (or it only has an arranger).

            If you cannot identify the arranger (or it has none), just use "Traditional" for the
            composer.  If you know the arranger's name, use this format:

                                                               Traditional
                                                               arr. Moses Hogan

In addition to basic details about the title and composer of the piece you'll be playing, you'll be expected to provide some analysis and interpretation of the piece. This analysis should be aided by background research using library resources (see other tabs). You may also be able to develop some interpretative conclusions based on conversations with your instrument instructor, interviewing a professional performer, or by applying your own expertise and experience playing the piece. Some questions you might answer in your analysis include:

  • What are the key musical elements of this piece? You might focus on harmony, melody, rhythm, accompaniment, etc.
  • What is the overall narrative of this piece? What are its major sections? Does the piece follow a standard musical form and, if so, what does that form consist of?
  • What makes this piece unique?
  • What should your audience listen for in your musical interpretation of this piece?

Be sure to include a vocal translation if there are lyrics to any pieces you're playing (see the tab above).