Programme notes – help or hindrance?

15th November 2019 | Concerts, Musings | 10 comments

Yesterday I was at a concert where, just as I was thinking of reading the programme notes, the lights went down and I couldn’t read them. Some concert halls don’t put the lights down; others dim them slightly, and some put them down to ‘theatre levels’, just leaving enough light for people to find their way to the exits.

It made me think about all the effort that goes into writing programme notes which concert-goers cannot read during the concert because of low light levels. I speak as one who is married to a very good programme-note writer. Because I know how much work goes into the research and writing of programme notes, I always look to see to how they’re received at concerts. Sometimes my heart sinks when I see they’ve been printed in a font so small that audience members squint at them with an air of frustration before laying the programme booklet aside. Let’s face it, lots of us find it tricky to read in dim light.

I said something about this on Twitter and several people assured me that they read programme notes after the concert. Which is absolutely fine if the notes are mainly to do with background and context, but not much use if they aim to draw your attention to things to listen out for.

Others told me that we don’t need programme notes, that it is better to come to a performance with innocent ears and make whatever you make of it. Which is fine if you’re able to do that. But if I think of myself at, say, an exhibition of contemporary art, I often don’t know what to make of it (except to feel ‘I don’t understand this’). My uninformed reaction isn’t particularly satisfying, in fact. I welcome whatever light an expert can throw on things in the form of gallery notes.

A couple of people told me that digital programme notes, downloaded to your phone or whatever, are better (and ‘greener’) than printed programme notes. But as far as I can see, they don’t solve the problem. You still have to read them at the concert. If that means reading them on the lighted screen of your phone or iPad, you’re going to annoy everyone sitting near you.

Programme notes seem to fall into two main types. Some focus on background information about composers or anecdotes about performers and pieces. Others try to plot a course through the music, pointing out landmarks that will help listeners to follow its structure. There’s not much point in reading such notes on the train home, unless you have a wonderful memory for what you heard two hours earlier.

Perhaps the answer is for the performers to tell the audience something about the pieces they’re going to play. Then nobody need squint at the small print in the programme. But not all performers want to do this, or are good at it. And what would become of all those learned music historians and musicologists who have made an art out of describing music in words?


  1. Alison Stewart

    Thank you for drawing attention to this Susan. I love to read programme notes just before the piece to be performed, and then to be able to glance at them during the performance if they’re the ‘landmark’ type. We pay a considerable price for a programme, and its main purpose is its commentary on the music. It is very frustrating when lighting levels are dimmed too far to let us read.

    • Susan Tomes

      You’re right, Alison- programme booklets can be expensive, and until you buy them you can’t know whether there is much useful information inside them! I’m thinking particularly of the theatre, where programmes sometimes have no much more than adverts, a list of the Acts, and biographies of the actors.

  2. Morag Kerr

    I don’t think I ever really considered this point consciously in this way. Why are the programme notes there, who writes them and what does he or she hope that the audience member gets out of them?

    I think it differs a lot between notes dealing with purely instrumental music and notes for vocal music where there are words that the aurience (one hopes!) will hear. And then again for an opera, where there aren’t just words but an entire drama where you may not actually want spoilers – especially if the text is also displayed on supertitles.

    As a teenager I always bought the programme (programmes were really quite cheap in the ’60s and ’70s as I recall) and learned a lot about many works that way. And I remember the lights being high enough to refer to the notes during the performance. At that age I really appreciated the educational opportunity. On the other hand I arrived so late for my first-ever “Fidelio” that I couldn’t buy the programme and watched the entire opera not actually knowing whether Leonore was going to succeed in rescuing her husband or not! That was a very dramatic experience.

    I have recently been learning a vocal work which I have heard performed by the composer, and also have the composer’s CD of. Although at the performance she introduced the cantata in general she said nothing about the meaning of that particular song, and the CD box only gives the title. It has taken typing the entire thing into Sibelius (to transpose it) and then learning both soprano and alto parts even to begin to understand the complexities of the text. And I have been musing for weeks as to whether, if I ever get so far as performing it, I should prepare a programme note to give the audience a sporting chance of understanding, or if I should follow the composer’s lead and simply leave the piece there to stand on its own.

    Food for thought indeed.

    • Susan Tomes

      Morag, it’s a great idea to provide some guidance for your audiences – either in the form of a spoken introduction or some written notes. People really like hearing from the performer, so perhaps you should focus on some spoken ‘notes’. Good luck with your performance!

  3. E Carol Dales

    In North America, program notes are usually free (that is, included with the price of one’s ticket), and are handed out as one enters the venue. I keep mine as mementos and reminders of concerts and recitals I attended, and also to read the notes I couldn’t read when the lights went down! Some venues (Disney Hall in Los Angeles comes to mind) collect discarded programs for recycling post event. As an amateur pianist, I’ve always taken time at our informal recitals to supply some background about what I’m about to play, and many of my colleagues also do that.

  4. Morag Kerr

    Susan, thank you for your kind advice. I’m not sure whether we will ever perform the song in question in public, but if we do I’ll do what you suggest. It was just something I was thinking about in the context of programme notes.

    To change the subject entirely, how much demand is there for new programme notes to be written, and how much recycling of earlier material goes on? At one point I’m sure the SNO just had a set of notes on file for their standard repertory, and got the same text out every time the piece was performed. I’m sure they were very good notes, but after a while one begins to notice. On the other hand, how much new insight is there to uncover in a frequently-performed work, and should one also be mindful of the people in the autience for whom this may indeed be the first time they’ve heard it?

  5. Susan Tomes

    Morag, you ask, ‘How much new insight is there to uncover in a frequently-performed work?’. I suppose one answer is whether the reader needs anything more than facts. The facts are, mostly, well established and could be reproduced in a programme note from one concert to another. But a good programme note writer will try to use their own experience of the piece to open up aspects of it which may throw new light on it for the listeners. Granted, if they don’t do that, there isn’t much point in new programme notes!

  6. Jeremy Hill

    I remember very clearly attending Halle concerts in Manchester in my teens, where the programme notes were of the “guidance” nature, including musical themes or excerpts – I found this really valuable in hearing pieces for the first time. This seems a natural counterpart to the words one can follow in vocal and choral concerts, as you say, as long as there is enough light (and people are thoughtful about turning pages).

    I have collected programmes for 40 years, but constraints of space (and some damp) mean they are probably going to have to go. I may find space for some others where the material is rich enough in content to sit alongside my collection of music books, and I would want to appreciate once again the thinking of the author. I will certainly look again at the Halle programmes in this light.

    Others have a nostalgic value – concerts I performed in, or particularly enjoyed – which means I want to find a way to record the concert information, to look up who, what, when and where. I wonder whether anyone knows of a ready-made way to do that, or whether I shall have to create my own database.

  7. Jeff Jersey

    How can we discuss the value of program notes when they are done especially well without a tip of the hat to the excellent work by one Robert Philip, who may be known to some hereabouts? His terrific book The Classical Music Lovers’ Companion is a good deal more than just a collection of fine program notes for dozens of the greatest pieces in the orchestral repertoire, but it is at the very least that. These are “program notes” for one’s own program put together at home, from CDs, streaming, or video performances, and in my experience have added immeasurably to my knowledge and appreciation of great works of art. They are the “liner notes” that don’t come with a streaming subscription, or all too often, even with CDs any more. I suspect that such “home use” of concert program notes after the fact of a concert is the way many concert goers continue the enjoyment after they have left the hall.

    • Susan Tomes

      Jeff, thank you so much for this kind comment, and apologies for taking so long to let it appear on the website. I have been struggling with technical problems behind the scenes of the website, and this was one of the consequences. Anyway, I shall pass your kind remarks to Robert. Wishing you a good start to the New Year when it comes.


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