Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why I Dislike Program Notes

Last year, the night before a big deadline, I was frantically trying to come up with a title for an important piece of which I was particularly proud. I wanted the title to be perfect, but I had been thinking about it for days, had pages and pages of notes, and didn't like anything I had come up with. I also had to write program notes, which was a whole other source of misery. I was desperate. Finally I just decided to go with something, tied it into the music, and dashed out some program notes.

At the first rehearsal I had to talk about the piece, so I spoke a bit about what I had come up with for my program notes (which seemed to make more sense at the time than explaining my complex method of how I had constructed the piece, which was also undoubtedly much more boring). After the rehearsal, one of the performers came up to me and said, "I didn't really get your piece at first, but after you told us the story it made so much more sense! I totally heard all of that in the music!" I was... flabbergasted. While the "story" she was talking about could fit musically, I had made it up off the top of my head so that I had something to write in my program notes. This piece is not intended to be programmatic, and while I hope it does evoke different moods and feelings, I never wanted to have to tell people what those moods and feelings were supposed to be. I'm fine with my music suggesting a program or images, but that's all-- a suggestion. I'd much rather that people come away with their own opinions, use their own imaginations. Why couldn't this performer make up her own “story” based on what she heard and how she interpreted the music if she didn't "get" my piece at first? My program notes were written with a more bottom-up than top-down approach-- I didn't come up with a program first and then write music based on that program; instead, I essentially did the same thing a performer might do. Isn't that part of why interpreting music is fun and interesting?

While I’m against using titles like “Untitled” or “String Quartet,” I often want to use these types of titles, not only so I won’t have to go through the trouble of thinking of a worthy title, but more because I usually don’t want the listeners or performers to have too many clues to what I was thinking when I wrote the music. What I was thinking may or may not be important to understanding or enjoying the piece, and a title I come up with will inherently be based on my biases, perceptions, and intentions. While my intentions may be relevant for some pieces, it certainly isn't always necessary to think about composer intent when listening to a piece.  I would much rather play someone an unnamed piece and learn what they think of it, instead of telling them what to think. I’m curious about what my piece evokes for them (if anything!), and through them discover something new about what I’ve written, or perhaps something new about them.

Natalie’s post on representation is an interesting discussion on whether we as composers can convey specific emotions or ideas through our music, and how well we may or may not do this. I wonder not so much how well I can convey something specific, but whether the same piece might convey two (or hopefully more) completely different things to different people, or better yet, something completely different to what I was thinking when I wrote it.  And on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, what if I want to convey something, but I don’t want to tell anyone what it is? I've written several pieces that come from particularly deep emotional places, and I wrote them partially to deal with some of these emotions. But I came up with somewhat cryptic titles (and never ended up writing program notes) because I didn't really want anyone to know what the piece meant to me. These types of pieces were written more for me than for an audience-- but that doesn't mean that they don't or shouldn't communicate anything. I would still hope that a listener could get something meaningful out of these pieces, whether or not it was the emotion I was intending when I wrote them.

I understand that titles and program notes can be useful to an audience and/or performer, or illuminate the piece in a way that would help someone understand it better. I'm not advocating for abolishing program notes, especially since I’ll admit that I almost always read program notes when I’m in the audience, and sometimes they can be very helpful (particularly the ones that actually explain something about how the piece was written). I’m also an advocate of talking about your piece to the audience before it’s presented. So perhaps I’m a bit of a hypocrite. But I think if listeners are asked to actively engage in the music by determining for themselves what the piece is “about” or what it means to them, maybe they will have a more meaningful experience. I think a listener deserves to be taken seriously enough that we should try to allow him or her to form their own opinion on what our music might "mean" or convey. They're smart enough to have their own interpretation without our help. On the other hand, maybe by giving listeners a title or program notes, you are allowing them to engage with the music as they try to determine why the composer gave the piece this title, or how the music connects with the program notes.

Still, sometimes titles and program notes can take away from the music-- in re-reading the last sentence in the previous paragraph, I'm not really sure I want a listener to spend the 7 or 8 minutes of a piece trying to understand why it had that particular title instead of actively engaging with, listening to, and experiencing the music. In non-programmatic music, how important are titles and program notes, really? Does it help or hurt to give a completely abstract piece a title? Even if the piece conveys emotion, is it necessary to document that in the title or program notes? Shouldn't that come through in the music? Who are titles and program notes really for, anyway?

Posted by Sarah


  1. Belated comment: A colleague of mine, Lisa Margulis, has done some interesting research that suggests that in many cases program notes can detract from our enjoyment of music(!). See:

  2. Thanks, Justin! That's a great excuse not to write program notes! I haven't had a chance to read the whole article yet but from the abstract it looks like they didn't speculate on why this phenomenon might exist. I wonder if it has something to do with the pressure of trying to hear what one is "supposed to" hear in the music, detracting from the enjoyment of actually just listening to and appreciating the piece. In any case, very interesting...

    -- Sarah