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Guide to Solo Vocal Literature at DePauw: Writing Program Notes

Point in Research

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!

Considerations When Writing Program Notes

Content: High quality program notes give your audience information about any combination of the following:

  • Composer
  • Piece
  • Context
  • Expectations
  • Interpretation

Organization: Many people find it helpful to organize program notes into three sections*:

  1. Brief introduction to the composer.
  2. Information about the work's historical context and the circumstances surrounding its composition.
  3. Description of the work itself.

Nigel Scaife, Writing Programme Notes: A Guide for Diploma Candidates (London: Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, 2001), 7.

Information: Some basic questions that you might want to answer include:

  • When and where was the composer born?
  • When and where did they die (if they have)?
  • What are they best known for?
  • What is their most significant contribution to music history?
  • When was the piece written?
  • What else was going on in their life or the world around them at that time?
  • What other works did the composer write in the same/similar genre(s)?

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?

Details: A further level of detail might need to be added, such as:

  • Titles of movements.
  • Structures/forms used in the piece/movements.
  • Terminology/jargon that the average listener may not know.
  • Anything that you would like the listener to listen for during 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?

Personalization: As the performer, you (should) have your own interpretation of the pieces you will be performing and you will want to comment on this interpretation, especially if it is unconventional, and how you reached your decision.

It is also acceptable to comment on any meaning that a piece might hold for you.

Citations: Yes, you have to cite your sources in the Chicago/Turabian Style!

"...the fair use of a copyrighted work...for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole;
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.*

*US Copyright Office. Circular 92, "Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code," Chapter 1, Section 107, Washington, DC: US Copyright Office, 2008. 6 March 2009.

Music and Performing Arts Librarian

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Sylvia Yang
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Subjects: Music


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