What’s true about program notes?

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

There was a time when people only had access to information about classical music when they attended a concert and read the program notes.

In most of the world such programs are an extra expense for audiences, but in the USA they give you programs for free!

Such a practice comes at a price, though, and free programs tend to be full of the ads that paid to get the program printed and the program notes written.

You might be lucky, though, and find a really awesome essay about the music. Unfortunately, things went a little too far when performers started seeking only credentialed academics to write the program notes. They became in-depth analyses of both history and theory which, to a handful of classical music geeks like me, became a viable source of information. But even I got tired of program notes and just wanted the story behind the music:

The why, what, where, when, maybe a little how.

Another problem with program notes also applies to online sources of information: they actually cannot be relied on.

Just because someone writes an essay about a piece of music, and may even offer some references, does not mean it is accurate. In many cases, we will never know what is accurate especially if the composer didn’t write their own program notes. Even then, though, many academics twist their words and generate some quite remarkable fantasies!

There are also times when composers were not actually allowed to write anything but a specific story.

I’m thinking of Shostakovitch who wrote a remarkable amount of repertoire for the USSR. He kept his own private music very private until much later in life for fear of losing his head. As a result, much of his public writing conforms to dictatorial pandering rather than true meaning. We must ask ourselves “what could be true and what isn’t?” of even many composers’ reflections on their own music.

Suffice it to say that, like with most things these days, get your little snippets of information from here and there, online and in program notes, but take it all with a pinch of salt.

You are gathering just a handful of perspectives, some of which may corroborate and some which may not.

The important thing is: experience the music and let it talk to your inner self, your emotions.

Yes, use your imagination to tell yourself a story; yes, use the information you have about the composition to understand how it was put together, and yes, use the history of the piece and the composer and the world at the time to influence the emotions you believe were intended.


music is alive.

Program notes, Wikipedia and every other source on the planet exist as support material. In fact, you will never be able to read or write enough words about music.

The truth is, words will never replace the actual live experience, and they will never be able to reveal the true truth about music.

They can’t.

That’s actually why music is.


Something else that’s unreliable yet we absorb without question, is others’ response to live music.

For example, these days there seem to be more and more standing ovations at almost every concert, regardless of the quality of the performance or whether or not the music actually touched our hearts.

It’s a bit of a recent pandemic, and one I’m not fully understanding (although appreciate it when it happens!)

So this is a topic I’d like to explore with you on the next episode of my new podcast, From The Podium. If you’d like to chime with your own thoughts the podcast is being recorded live this Saturday morning at 8am Eastern… and you can call in to share your thoughts on the Podium Chat.

Sign up now to get notified about it and I’ll tell you how to listen live, wherever you are in the world: