Writing ABRSM and Trinity Music Diploma Programme Notes

This programme notes section in the diploma exams is one in which students can earn very close to full marks.  As a piano teacher, I see that students when guided well easily score 80-90% of the marks in the Viva Voce and Presentation sections of the ABRSM and Trinity diploma exams respectively.

Programme Notes Overview

A. Programme page

Before the actual write-up, provide the programme showing the list of pieces to be performed and their composers in the order of performance.  List out the movements for any sonatas and multi-movement works.  For Trinity, you may include individual timings of the pieces.

Examples of professional programme notes for London Symphony Orchestra concerts may be found here.  Examples notes for instrumental works like a violin concerto or symphony without text and singing would be more relevant if you are writing for a piano recital.

See how relevant information for the piece performed is included and also how the writer describes different moments in the music.  There are sections of pure biographical background of the composers in the LSO programme notes that will not be needed in diploma programme notes.

B. Purpose

Programme notes are typically provided to concert-goers so they are:

  • informed about the background of the pieces being performed 
  • informed of any important stylistic contributions of the piece
  • able to follow descriptions of the music during the performance

C. Structure

  1. Include specific information relating to the piece
  2. Include important stylistic contributions of the piece without using bar numbers or being too technical
  3. Describe the music, at least the beginning, any important moments or climaxes and how it ends

Always use your own words when writing the programme notes.  Paraphrase any information from books and always verify any information from the internet.  Use good and reliable sources.

D. Describing the Music

Describing the music in your own words is challenging to many students.  It does not need to be complicated - rather, something simple and easily followed.  For example, here is a description of a make-believe piece:

This prelude starts quietly and slowly with a single-line melody in the high register.  More voices join in imitating the opening melody creating an ethereal choral effect.  Before long, thick chords build to a loud and intense climax before the piece fades to a tranquil end.

Adjust the level of detail according to the word count.  Each piece should have quite a similar word count but the main piece e.g. a 3 movement sonata usually would have at least double the word allocation of the other pieces.

E. Writing for the audience

For both ABRSM or Trinity diplomas, write appropriately for the level of the audience.  At DipABRSM and ATCL, when writing for a general concert audience, I would explain terms when necessary.  Here is how to do it:

There are two subjects (principal melodic lines) heard simultaneously at each occurrence and contrasting episodes (without the subjects) in between.

Tips on Writing Programme Notes

Make your notes specifically relevant to the pieces.  General comments about the composer's life and style are not needed.

Comments about the instrument the piece was written for and how it affects current performance are appreciated.

Always write clearly, concisely and in a well-organised manner. 

Consider Content and Research below and click here to read about Format and Presentation.

Word Count for ABRSM:

DipABRSM    General concert audience 1,100 words ±10%
LRSM More musically informed audience    1,800 words ±10%

Word Count for Trinity:

ATCL Recital 400-700 words
LTCL Recital 800-1,100 words
FTCL Performance     1,200-1,600 words

The word requirement should cover all the pieces being presented.  For Trinity diplomas, detailed timings for each work and movement should be included.

1. Content

Good details to always include are:

  • when the piece was written/first performed/published
  • who it was dedicated to or commissioned by
  • any influences on the work
  • the circumstance during it was written
  • the importance of the piece

In addition, there needs to be a description of the piece so that the listener can follow as the music progresses.  Any easily recognisable, distinct features especially of any important themes may be highlighted. 

How the music reflects a particular style or tradition or how it is particularly unusual or inventive should also be discussed.  No detailed analysis is needed - avoid using bar numbers and any unexplained technical terms.

2. Research

A broad understanding of the composer's work and style is necessary as a backdrop to the more detailed writing required.  Some recommended books are:

A History of Western Music by Donald J. Grout Norton, 2001
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition Macmillan, 2001

In ABRSM exams especially, write only what you understand.  Questions will be asked during the Viva Voce section to test your understanding of points raised in the programme notes.  Clear and confident answers are expected.

20th century works

For contemporary pieces, where little information may have been published about the work, you may write to the publisher to find out any background on the work involved.

Read on Format and Presentation of Programme Notes here.


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