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Syracuse University Libraries

Music: Write Program Notes

for music history & cultures, scores, recordings, data, copyright, and more!

Program Note Contents

1. Provide basic information on the creator(s) of the work or performance.

"Creator" can be a broad term, depending upon the type of performance. Include relevant details for any persons or groups involved. [If you are creating a recital program as a degree requirement, do write about the composer in your program notes, but include performer bios separately in your program]

  • European and American art music: composer and librettist/poet
  • Popular music: songwriter, original recording artist, performer(s)
  • Traditional music/dance: people/culture from which the work/performance originated
  • Dance: choreographers, performers/groups

Be selective and intentional in listing off facts -- include what would be relevant to someone listening, not a full history.

  • What is the nationality or cultural group of origin of the creator(s) and performer(s)? If it is traditional music (with no specific known creator), speak to the nature of the cultural group that originated the work.
  • Did the creator(s) or performer(s) study under someone important, or have a creative relationship with a prominent group? Who were major influences over the creators?
  • Are there unique facts or personal experiences from the creator's or performers' lives in relation to this work?

Search tools:

2. Give the contextual background of the work or performance.

  • For Euro-American art music or dance, what year was the work written, and when did it fall during the creator's (composer/choreographer's) career?
  • For popular music or Euro-American art music or dance, did a notable performer premiere it or first record it?
  • Is this a standard work (jazz), a traditional tune (traditional/folk music), or originally composed? Is this an improvised work or have improvised sections?
  • Is the work intended for a specific event, location, tradition, or ritual? When and where did the work premiere or originate? Did some person or group commission the work?
  • Discuss the title -- does it have specific meaning or significance? Are there genres, modes, or other terms used in the title (particularly relevant outside of Euro-American art music)?
  • Describe any instruments that might not be familiar to the audience. This is especially important for traditional or world popular music.

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3. Describe how the work or performance is related to others of the same style, tradition, movement, or genre.

  • Is there a technique used in the work that is also used by a different creator?
  • Was this work influential for another creator?
  • Is this work a common example of a particular style, movement, or school of composition?
  • Describe the genre or style and how it originated.
  • Where does the work fit in the canon of work for that instrument or voice type?

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4. Suggest what the audience ought to listen or watch for in the performance.

  • Does the work have a form?
  • Anything notable about tempo changes, phrasing, modulations, or other analysis?
  • Are there unique sounds, unique choreographic formations, or unconventional techniques? Sections of improvisation?
  • Are there characteristic intervals, pitches, tone clusters, or melodic patterns? Characteristic body movements?
  • Is there special use of a specific instrument?
  • Are there notable differences in interpretation between different performers?

Provide your own analysis by viewing or listening to a live performance or recording, or visually examining the score if available.

In the library...

  • Search SUMMON for your type of composition (songs, piano concertos, etc) and the words "analysis appreciation"
  • Search SUMMON for CDs to read liner notes for your composition
  • Search Alexander Street Music & Performing Arts to locate videos or streaming recordings that are similar to your work

Other Program Contents -- Setnor Performance Programs

example performance program1. Performance Header

  • Name of sponsoring organization, school, or university
  • Recital title (or use solo performer's name if a recital)
  • Full date (including year), time, and place

2. Details for each work

  • Full work title, appropriate keys, opus numbers, etc.
  • Composer's full name with birth/death dates (if a living composer, put (b. YYYY) for year born)
  • Movements, song titles, or excerpts to be performed
  • Names of performers and instruments/voice type

3. Text translation for vocal music

  • Provide an idiomatic translation and the original text
  • Set in a two-column format for easy comparison

In the library...

4. Provide biographies for all performers on your recital. 

  • Musician's Way Blog: Step-by-step instructions, general tips
  • Search the web for other examples


two birds, blue jay says "But how do I Write Program notes!" to a dove behind a small library desk labeled Bird Library

Does this seem overwhelming?

Too much, can't figure out where to start? 

Then follow this link to the Program Notes E-Mail Challenge, pick a week, and get them done!

Online Reference for Creators, Genres, and Locations

Help with Formatting & Writing

Online Resources for Modern Composers