Program Notes (and Pictures)

Program notes for concerts aren’t really notes. They tend to be program essays more than anything. Some I’ve seen were three to four pages long.

Does all of that information need to be there? Does it effect how the audience perceives the music in an immediate way? That is what program notes should do. They should give us details that add to the narrative of what music’s being performed.

Yet that is where the “note” part of program notes should come in. When I think of notes I think of high school bullet points: quick quips that cue me in. The details shouldn’t detract from the performance. Listening is primary and reading is secondary. Period.

What if program notes took a more visual route? Pictures with two to three sentences next to them at most? There could be diagrams for piece structures too. All of which could help a listener cut out prolonged distraction. Because a concert shouldn’t be Beethoven playing in the background as you focus on reading about Beethoven.

And yet if the pictures pop out too much it just becomes an art show with classical music in the background. Some kind of balance will have to be met. Working towards that balance, however, is the first step in a better direction than once we came.

Maybe we should look to artists who incorporate writing and visuals well, people like Wendy Macnaughton and Austin Kleon.


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