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Program Notes

program on a chair

For many degree recitals, students offer program notes that will inform and engage audience members about their musical selections. Program notes are written for an educated and curious audience, who may or may not be musical experts. It is the student’s job to present relevant and characteristic details of the music, along with significant background information and other thought-provoking connections to history, politics, art, science, etc.
If you want to offer program notes at your recital, you must use the following timeline:

  1. Submit to the SAEC to review and revise with a tutor - 4 weeks before recital date
  2. Submit to the appropriate department chair - 3 weeks before recital date
  3. Submit final copy to the Concert Office - 2 weeks before recital date

If you do not submit your program notes on time, they will not be printed.


Getting started

Use this template to write your program notes. Copy the text and create your own Google Document that can be easily shared.

Program notes often talk about:

  • The circumstances of a work’s composition
  • First performance / significant context
  • Relationship to genre, other works, or musical or literary influences
  • Musical style
  • Scoring
  • Things that audience members should listen for

Program notes usually do not include:

  • Your personal opinions about the work
  • Too much technical terminology
  • Overly casual or emotional language
  • More personal anecdotes than information

Each piece or set on the program should have its own note, ranging from 250 to 400 words. The length of the note will depend on the length and complexity of each piece or set, and what you think is important for the audience to understand.

Select one or two main themes and organize your note around them. Think about each note as a narrative that tells an interesting story about each piece, rather than trying to include too many scattered details.


Use appropriate musicological sources to research and write your program notes. Use the links below to get started or book an appointment with an SAEC tutor to talk about library research. Program notes do not need to include citations - however they must be in your own words and not plagiarized. If a piece has a foreign text, you should include a translation.

SFCM Library - Visit the SFCM Library to get personal help starting your research.

Bellman, Jonathan. A Short Guide to Writing About Music. New York: Longman, 2000.
On Reserve at the SFCM Library: ML3797.B42 S5 2000

San Francisco Public Library - Click here to get your free library card. Get online access to many online research databases, including JSTOR, Academic Search Complete (EBSCO), and full-text journal articles not available at SFCM.

McGill University Library - Guides - Program note writing
Peabody Institute - Friedheim Music Library - Guidelines for Preparing Program Notes
Royal Schools of Music - Writing Programme Notes: A guide for diploma candidates
University of Western Ontario - Citing musical sources in your essay and bibliography
Oxford Music Online
New Grove Dictionary of Music (also owned by Oxford Music Online)
RILM Abstracts of Music Literature
Naxos Music Library