Writing Diploma Programme Notes

After talking with diploma candidates in Hong Kong last week, I’ve come away with a strong sense that the one area in which they really are lacking in clear guidance is in the requirement to write programme notes. The ABRSM produces a booklet which doesn’t provide the kind of clear and concise information which candidates seek, while Trinity Guildhall offers nothing other than the comment in the syllabus that “A useful guide to the kind of approach looked for may be taken from professional public concert programmes”. I have to say I felt this was adequate until it dawned on me that both the standard of programme notes given at professional concerts varies widely – many do not even provide a programme booklet – and that a large number of candidates would have not experienced programme notes written in English, so would not be too sure how relevant these are to exam requirements.

For the past 18 months or so I have been working on a book about Putting Music Into Words and have prepared a chapter on writing programme notes for diplomas. It’s still a long way off completion, but I thought it might be helpful to put up some extracts to give diploma candidates some idea of what was expected. If you follow this guide there is absolutely no guarantee that you will pass this section of the exam or even avoid some criticism from the examiners – just as would be the case if you copied slavishly what you hear on a disc when it comes to performing a certain work – but you will be working along the right lines.

Remember, the Programme Notes, including the Title (or Programme) page, must be presented in a neat and tidy manner, preferably using word processing software. Photographs or other illustrations are not expected, but can add to the visual impact of your notes. Do NOT give any details of your own background or include any personal messages (such as dedications or votes of thanks to teachers or to the examiner), and please remember to put your candidate number and the date of the exam on the Title page. The first thing is to present on the title sheet of your programme the full list of music you are going to perform; composers, titles, movements and timings. Give the composers with their full names and dates in brackets, followed by full titles of works with opus/catalogue numbers; the convention is to place such numbers after the title separated by a comma, but putting them in brackets is also acceptable. If the work has a nickname, place this after the title, separated by a dash, and then give the total playing time for the complete work in brackets. Then, under the title, give the list of movements (if any). For example;

 Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) – Violin Sonata No.1 in G, Op.78 – “Regenlied” (27’00)

 i.Vivace ma non troppo


 iii.Allegro molto moderato

In most cases you can get all this information from your copy of the music, but failing that, any professional recording will give it. It is essential to present the pieces in your programme in the order in which they will be played. Once you have decided on the playing order (and try to select an order which makes sense when you listen to it, NOT when you put it down on paper – Bach, Beethoven, Bartók and Birtwistle might not make much sense when you listen to them in that order, although on paper it looks nice and neat with a pleasing chronological sequence), time each COMPLETE work carefully by playing it several times over and seeing how long it takes from beginning to end without interruption, then put down the time TO THE NEAREST HALF MINUTE; any timing more precise than that is wholly inappropriate in a live recital and lays you open to criticism from the examiner. Do not give timings for individual movements, but for whole works.

Then to the notes themselves which need to be within the word-counts specified in the syllabus; ATCL (400-700 words), LTCL (800-1100 words), FTCL (1200-1600 words), DipABRSM (990-1210), LRSM (1620-1980) and FRSM (4050-4950). Please give the TOTAL word count for all except the first (programme) page. There are certain important formalities to observe with each specific syllabus (you must not give your name in the ABRSM programme note, for example) but the basic content is uniform across the syllabuses. Programme notes, whether for diploma or for any other purpose, have three basic elements as outlined below.

1. Biography. This is to introduce the composer to your audience, to assess his place in musical history and to give some outline of his major achievements as a composer. It would typically include details of his nationality, his training, his position in society, his output and his current reputation.

2. Background. This puts the work you are playing into its historic context, explaining why it was written, for whom, when it was written, when and where (and by whom) it was first performed, and where it stands in the output of the composer and the repertoire of the instrument.

3. Analysis. This describes in some detail the major points to listen out for in the work. In the context of a programme note, an analysis is more in the nature of a basic road-map rather than a detailed breakdown of technical structure. Think of it more as a listener’s guide than an academic presentation of form and structure.

The balance between these three aspects, the detail you go into in each and the length you devote to each depends wholly on the context. In the case of examination diplomas, for example, you would probably have very little biography, devoting most of the space to background and, to a lesser extent, analysis. However, if performing a work by a little-known composer, a little more biographical detail might be appreciated. Two important things to remember when writing programme notes is that, while in almost every case you will have found your material from other sources (programme notes are not the place to publish original scholarly research), you must always put it into your own words or, if you find a quote which you cannot think of re-writing in any clearer way, ALWAYS put it in quotation marks and acknowledge the author – ie. The movement’s main theme has been described by Dr Ewald Kooiman in his biography of the composer as “not a melody which will linger long in the memory once heard” – but NEVER use footnotes nor include a bibliography or list of references. You will impress the examiners with your background reading by using these quotes and manage to avoid charges of plagiarism, but avoid using quotations which do not have named authors, as these will invariably have been précised from other sources, and then you will be risking allegations of plagiarism. So if you find a quote you want to use from, say Wikipedia or an un-signed programme note, DON’T USE IT!

 Remember, also, to be consistent in your language and use of terminology. If using American English, remember to re-spell those words (ie. colour, accommodation) which you may have found in a British English reference book, and always use the approximate terms – half-note, quarter-note, measure in American English: minim, crotchet, bar in British English. Any inconsistency will be leapt on by the examiners as proof of the notes not being in your own words. If presenting notes in non-English, ensure your original is presented alongside the translation.

Biography: You do not need to waste time by giving the composer dates again (they are on the Title page) and do NOT say things like “Mozart is a Classical composer”, which actually means nothing at all in this context, but for the biography, simply give some information about the composer which is relevant to the work you are playing and also shows your knowledge of the composer beyond his piano music – ie. “Mozart wrote his first piano sonata in 1775 when he was 19. At the time he was in Munich to handle the final preparations for the ninth of his 20 operas, La finta giardiniera”. As you progress up the diploma ladder, the biography should show a little more detail of the composer’s life leading to the time he wrote the work, but even at the highest level, avoid any general detail in this area as it is irrelevant to your target audience. Basic biographical material is easily found at http://www.naxos.com (click on “composers”) or in basic reference books such as The Penguin Dictionary of Music or The Oxford Companion to Music.

Background. A lot of the information you need here will be found in the music you use in the examination room. Often publishers introduce the work with some interesting essay, and at the very least a date of publication (sometimes even of composition) is given at the bottom of the first page or at the end of the work. Look at the dedication; who was it written for? Otherwise, you need to dig quite deep to find material for this. Without doubt the very best reference to find the information you need is Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians; good libraries stock it, and it is available (at a cost) online at http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com. Look also at CD booklets and concert programme notes (sometimes you can find the latter online, but usually you need to pay to get access to the best ones) and do not forget to check out the publisher’s website. In many cases, the publishers provide a lot of background detail, especially when it comes to more recent or obscure works. Contemporary composers nearly all have their own website, but beware of their tendency to be a little more extravagant with facts than is warranted!

Analysis. You have to do this yourself! What you must do at DipABRSM/ATCL level is listen to the music and recognise what its main features are. Try to write a guide for the listener so that they know what to expect, but avoid technical language or overly-precise references; programme notes should not refer to bar-numbers, nor should they attempt to show how clever the writer is in using specialist technical terms. At LRSM/LTCL level, a little more technical knowledge is expected – here you could mention details of form and tonality in guiding the listener through the music – while at Fellowship level, although you must still avoid excessively academic detail, try to show a deep personal knowledge of the structure and design of the work. At every level, though, it is a listening guide rather than a detailed academic analysis that’s called for.

Finally, use your programme notes to give some information about your own interpretation of the work. While “I like this piece because it reminds me of my pet cat” is quite inappropriate, “Having heard recordings of the work by Sophie-Anne Mutter and Joshua Bell, I feel that the ornamentation given in the edition I use is excessive and have chosen to follow what I have heard on those recordings”, shows both an intelligent approach to preparing your performance and justifies why you deviate from the copy of the music you have passed to the examiner.

Here’s the sort of thing we might expect in an ATCL programme note (the composers and works are wholly fictitious):


César Juillet (1899-1977); Preludio Dansée (4’00)

Domenico Giulio (1825-1867); Fantasia in D minor, Op.4 No.2 (7’00)

Ludwig Amadeus Schicht (1799-1860) ; Sonata No.10 in G (16’00)


ii.Adagio espressivo


Peter Vaskin (b.1967); A Familiar Creature, Op.566 (6’00)

Programme Notes

A pupil of Theodore Dubois at the Paris Conservatoire, César Juillet had to abandon his studies when his father was killed on active service in the First World War and he was obliged to take a job with the French railways. From then on he composed only intermittently when his duties permitted, his Preludio Dansée being just his third work for piano and was published in 1960. It was first performed by Marie Céleste in the Grand Hall of the Paris Conservatoire on 4th August 1959 and makes much use of loud and heavy chords as well as strong and repetitive rhythms which gives the work its dancing character. I also think that this driving rhythm was probably inspired by the sound of a moving train, something which would have been very familiar to Juillet from his career as a train driver.

Domenico Giulio was well-known for his operas, of which he wrote around 50, most of which were first performed at the opera house in his native Rome. He also wrote several purely instrumental works, but the set of “Six Fantasias” for piano published by Ricordi in 1930 are actually arrangements of numbers from his operas made by the Italian pianist Lucia Stillini. The Second Sonata in D minor opens with a meditative theme from the opera Molto Tristessa and builds to a dramatic climax, at which point the famous chorus from La Travolta appears before the music subsides to its quite conclusion with a sad melody from Di San Marco.

Schicht’s 37 published piano sonatas were all written during the last 20 years of his life, during which time he was Director of Music at the Court of King Leopold XVI of Sweden. No.10 was published in 1842 with a dedication to the composer and pianist Olga Schmidt, who possibly gave the first performance but, as Peter Wink writes in the introduction to the published Urtext edition, “There is no concrete evidence of a performance before 1918 when the one surviving copy of the work re-emerged following the reconstruction of the University library in Göttingen and was played by Emil Leen in the celebrations to mark the ending of war in Sweden”. While its first movement follows the customary Sonata Form outline with two contrasting themes – one fast in the major key and a slower one in the relative minor – the second movement is an expressive Adagio which shows, in the words of Brian Williams, “Schicht’s unfulfilled interest in writing for the human voice”. In keeping with the famous recording of the work by Laurens Loopie, I have chosen to observe all the repeats in the short but lively concluding Rondo.

My recital closes with a humorous piece by the English composer and jazz pianist Peter Vaskin, who spent much of his early career as a session musician with such notable bands as BoyzBinz and GIrlzGrinz. A highly prolific composer for the piano – he wrote his Op.700 when he was still in his early 30s – this piece was inspired by a passage from Shakespeare’s Othello – “Good wine is a good familiar creature” – and cleverly portrays the uneasy progress of a person befuddled by alcohol as he attempts to perform Offenbach’s famous Can-Can. It was written for the Edinburgh Festival in 1992 when he performed it in the open air on an electric piano.


8 Responses to “Writing Diploma Programme Notes”

  1. 1 Rochelle
    October 27, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Thank you for the help. I was COMPLETELY lost. Now, at least I have a clue as to how to start writing these notes. Thanks again.

  2. 2 Jacqueline
    November 2, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    This is really a very helpful guide line for me..thank you.

  3. 3 Sherry
    November 7, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    Thank you very much! This is really useful!

  4. 4 Arosha
    November 8, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Dear Sir,

    I want to write my programme notes for my music exam.Can you please help to write this



  5. November 11, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Thanks for the article. Really helped me a lot in my atcl diploma exam notes earlier this week.

  6. 7 johann
    December 3, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    Great advice! Thanks.

    But I have a question. I went to your seminar 2 months ago. You told us examiners will not interrupt a LTCL exam, and will not talk to candidates during exam. But during my LTCL exam, the examiner talked to me and told me not to repeat a short repeat on Bach partita (during the movements). He not only interrupted me and my mood, he also shorten my program time. What should I do? Thanks.

    • 8 drmarcrochester
      December 4, 2010 at 7:00 am

      Hi Johann
      Even in the best of circles there are black sheep and, it seems, you were examined by one. You will need to put in a formal complaint about this.
      Dr Marc

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