Piano Diploma Exams: Program Notes (ABRSM/TCL)

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For students preparing for diploma exams or music students studying at a university/conservatory, occasionally there are chances to write “program notes”, which, simply said, is to introduce about the pieces performing in one’s concert/recital (exam).

How do we write some decent program notes?

Just like writing a good essay or story, there should always be a clear and well-planned structure, with the following three parts/paragraphs: introduction, main body, and conclusion.

In the introduction, you can write something about the composer – for the more obscured/less well-known ones – or about the genre/background of the piece – do not write something too general such as, “J.S. Bach is the most famous composer from the Baroque period.” Make the introduction short and brief, with a couple clear points to give background to the piece.

In the main body, you can first explain the title of the piece. It usually tells about either the genre/structure/form of the piece, or the meaning about the piece. E.g. if it is a sonata, the first movement would most likely be in sonata form; but do not write “in a sonata form, there are exposition, development and recapitulation”, unless there is in fact any deviation from the normal structure. Write something special about the piece.

Do not be too technical about the structure. Merely write about the key change and thematic materials is boring! Remember, the program notes is for general reading. However, do not be too sentimental or even make something up about the piece. You have to provide some solid information, while at the same time give our own personal judgment or feeling about the music. After all, it is all about balance.

The main body is the biggest part of the whole program notes, like the main course, the entrée to a great full meal. Select a few ideas and drop them down on a scrap paper before you actually write the paragraph. How many ideas you have to select depends on how long the program notes you are going to write. Play or listen to the music to get more grasp of what elements you want to bring out in the notes.

The conclusion, or the ending of the program notes is not always necessary, however useful at times. Close with a clean ending sentence with a clear solid idea to round up the whole notes. Make sure you present all your ideas in the main paragraph and do not leave anything hanging unfinished.

Now, let me give you a sample of my program notes I wrote some years back here:

Ballade Op.23 in G minor (1835)Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)

Inspiration from poetic and literary fields was important in music from the Romantic period. The term “ballade” was used as a title for a collection of four pieces by Chopin, whose choice of title might have been inspired by a reading of his Polish compatriot Mickiewicz’s literary ballads. This particular piece is said to be influenced by the ballad “Konrad Wallenrod”, in terms of its poetic style and structural design.

This ballade, written in 1835, subtly reveals the composer’s love and yearning for his native country Poland which he left for Paris to further his career. Starting with a rather slow and suspending motion with tremendous heaviness, it flows into a moderate waltz-like tempo, with longing emotion in the first theme; it then becomes more restless and expands into sparkling movement. The second theme is colorfully sentimental and serene. However, the tranquility is put to a stop by the return of the first theme and the music gradually becomes more strikingly powerful. A brilliant passage on the high register is followed by a light-hearted section which dance rhythm allows only a brief respite before the musical rage comes back again in a wave-like motion. The last presentation of the varied first themes brings the music to the coda in which Chopin’s complicated emotion seems to outburst in a thunderous storm. This outbreak of sentimental sadness and burning rage is brought to an end by glistening scales and shrill octave progressions.


The ABRSM has published a brief guide to writing programme notes a few years ago. It is a useful reference for you all. Click here for the link.

Until next post,
Teresa Wong

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