23 March 2018

Gudiance on Writing Programme Notes and Music Criticism - 1

Students on my Music criticism course are given written guidance on many aspects of technique.  A question from someone writing programme notes for a diploma recital has made me think that some of this guidance might be relevant to them, so I reprint parts of it here:

1. Introduction
In all its various guises, the objective in music criticism and in writing programme note is to clarify and explain.  To do this, language has to be simple and direct.  This paper aims to give pointers to help achieve this, without diminishing the essential individuality of each writer’s use of language. 

2. References and External material
There is a golden rule in all writing for non-specialist musicians - the majority of consumers of music criticism and programme notes; NEVER use footnotes or citations – if to read our work, the reader is obliged to refer elsewhere, its independence and immediacy is negated. It means we are not using our own words (and, by implication in criticism, not expressing our own views) and, furthermore, it imposes on the reader an obligation to expend further effort to understand what should be immediately evident. 

In music criticism, material from external sources directly connected with the item under review (second-hand) should be used sparingly (if at all) and without exhorting the reader to find that material for themselves.  Where, in academic writing, we might expect full detailing of material derived from external sources, in criticism, we must acknowledge briefly without identification.  Thus, should the need arise in the critic’s mind to quote from booklet notes, programme notes, or publicity fliers, the words taken would be placed in inverted commas and merely acknowledged as “according to the booklet notes"/"the booklet notes tell us”/”the publicity told us”, etc. etc.  If (and this should rarely occur) the critic wants to use material from a source which was not directly connected with the subject of the review (third party), a mention of the author or source material should be made, but without excessive detail.  For example, “When Mendelssohn took a boat to the Hebrides, his fellow passengers reportedly said he looked ‘very green in face’.”  This acknowledges that the words have come from a third party source, and there is no need to identify it.  If it needs to be identified (perhaps because it offers an unusual opinion), keep it short.  “Mendelssohn’s scherzo movements are usually considered light and airy, but Malcolm Smyth has written that this one ‘is more in the manner of cows dancing on concrete’.”
You are obliged to identify words which are not your own, but you are under no obligation to acknowledge their precise source.

3. Musical Terms

There are certain musical terms, usually in Italian, which are universally recognised as such, even if the majority of those who recognise such words have only a vague notion of their correct meaning.  The writer should recognise this, and treat them as ordinary English words in passing (ie. “the first movement was an allegro and full of joy”).  Only when the word is a specific title should it be treated differently.  However, since the precise meaning of these words is not widely known (even amongst musicians) the writer must be careful of using them other than when reporting what the music is called or described as.  Do not use them as English adjectives, since their shades of meaning are too complex to be treated as such.  So, “the performance was not really allegro” is wrong, while “despite being marked allegro, the performance seemed very slow and solemn” is acceptable. 

Music criticism/programme notes are not forums to provide the level of education required to explain the implications of these technical terms, so do not attempt ever to explain them.  In addition, from your target audience, try to identify the level of musical knowledge and how far you can use these terms without explanation.  Often a young audience will not even know basic words like crescendo; so rather than use them, suggest “the piece gradually grew louder”, whereas a more mature and experienced concert audience would know the meaning and you should not write down to them in a way which might be perceived as insulting their intelligence; use the term in its correct context “towards the end of the movement there was an extended crescendo”.  The same applies with words like forte and piano.  But when we get into more specialist and cumulative terminology (“Lebhaft”, “Sehr Mässig”, “doucement”, “andante quasi adagio”), if necessary, some translation or word of explanation will be appropriate – in which case do not relate the word to other terms, nor give dictionary definitions which often do not illuminate adequately, but explain them in simple English.


  1. Great insight! Do you think you could write more of such guides? Love it!

    1. If you are in Singapore on 21st June I am giving a workshop on the subject as part of the 7th Singapore Performer's Festival.