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Tutorial: How do I write program notes?


After months of hard work you’re ready to perform that big recital but you still have one last hurdle to complete--writing the program notes for your recital!  This short tutorial will give you an overview of sources to use when writing your program notes.

Let’s start by looking at what is included in program notes.

Program notes typically start with a heading that includes the full title with appropriate keys, numbers, opus numbers, and catalog numbers, date of composition, the composer’s full name and dates, movements or song titles to be performed, names of instrumentalists/vocalist performing.
Following this information, you’ll find a short biography of the composer, a description of the work, and your interpretation of the work.  Translations will also be included for any non-English vocal works.  Let’s take a closer look on where to find this information.

Title of the work, including keys, numbers, opus numbers, and catalog numbers can often be found on the score you’re using in performance.  This information, along with the date of composition, may also be found in Grove Music Online.  Grove Music Online is a great place to start research for your program notes.

Grove Music Online may be found on the left sidebar of the Music Library homepage or on the Music subject guide under “Reference Resources, Dictionaries & Encyclopedias”.

Begin by searching for your composer’s last name in the search box and select your composer from the results list.  Grove provides birth and death dates of your composer and detailed biographical information on the composer’s life that may be used to write the biographical paragraph in your program notes.

The works list, organized by the thematic catalog number, will provide the full title of the work, key, and date of composition if available.  This information will be useful for the header of your program notes.

Additional biographical information may be found by browsing the biography section of the music library found in the ML410 section.   Browse the indexes of these biographies for information on your specific work too.

If the work you are researching is a major work, you may be able to search the library catalog for books written about the work.  
Articles databases such as RILM or Music Index may also be a great resource for information on individual works.  These article databases provide citations and abstracts for articles.  Use the “check for full text” purple button to connect to the full text online or request a copy to be sent from another library.

Liner notes for recordings give a good description of the work too.  Scores may also have a brief description of the work included in the front of the score.

The Music Library has several song translation books that may be consulted when adding your song translation.  On the Music Library homepage, see the “help” section under Find Songs, Arias, and Art Songs for a full list of materials to consult for translations.

You may also use our song translation database for quick access to Music Library books containing a translation of your song.
Remember to give credit for any information in your program notes that isn’t your own voice or translations borrowed from another source with a footnote.

Still have questions?  Stop by the Music Library or use the “Ask Us” link to email, chat with or text a librarian.