A recent post over at The Free Arrow, that came to me via Greg Sandow’s blog, talks about the idea of using a scoreboard of sorts at classical concerts to help the uninitiated follow along. The author, Michael Oneil Lam, tells us that he is not part of the classical world but does go to concerts because his wife is a musician. He states his frustration with following program notes at these events:

My biggest gripe about modern orchestra concerts is that I lose my place so easily. The program notes talk about an “icy interlude in the high strings indicating a modulation to the subdominant;” but even if I understood what a subdominant was, the violins are nearly always playing and they always sound high to me so I have no idea when the particular segment referred to by the program notes actually occurs. Thus, I have to look several events forward and backward in the notes and try to pattern-match them to the things I’ve heard in the past 5-10 minutes to have any hope of knowing where I am in the piece (“is this the ‘lyrical horn solo’ or was that the bit a couple of minutes ago?”). After 15 minutes or so of this, I inevitably give up.

He then goes on to describe how a scoreboard would be able to display the name of the piece, conductor, composer, current position in the music and even what section of the orchestra the audience should be paying attention to. I have to applaud Michael for spending the time and effort to come up with a fairly novel idea but I also can’t help noticing the myriad of issues at classical concerts that this idea should bring to our attention.

For one, why do we require such detailed program notes in the first place? Why don’t program notes exist at concerts for any other genre of music? At a pop music concert (to use a convenient general term for non-classical music) we’re only told the name of the artist if they decide to tell us themselves. We only know the name of the song or the backstory for it if the musicians choose to talk to us about it. And we certainly never hear about subdominant modulations or the theory behind why the guitar solo is based on a pentatonic scale. These are all things we regularly find in program notes though. It’s as if the classical world is so insecure about whether the music can be appreciated on its own that it decides to shove obtuse information into the face of the audience in order to assert its complexity and importance. Pianist Jeremy Denk checked something similar to this off on his list of program note sins, calling it the “insider’s club” sin:

Included in many program notes are tidbits of historical information.

It’s amazing how canonical these tidbits can become. I played Beethoven’s First Concerto a number of times last season and every single program note noted that while the First Concerto is called number 1, it was actually composed second, after the Second Concerto, which was actually first. Now, as a performer and person, I am theoretically glad I know this, in the larger context of the Beethoven story, but, finally: YAWN. In fact, double yawn! Yawn times infinity plus one! Suppose you as a listener and program note reader do not know the Second Concerto, and you’re just looking for help to appreciate the work before you: this seems like a pretty “meta” piece of information to help you out; it seems like what a kind of tedious museum guide would say. Ironic, because of all Beethoven works the First Concerto is not “meta”: from the moment the piano enters, its simplicity requires no insider information. Beethoven takes care to speak to you with obvious grammar, with clear rhetoric, almost Phrasing for Dummies. And he takes you dummies through an epic tale nonetheless, using the harmonic equivalent of “see Jane run” as a doorway to shaded, subtle corners of tonality.

When I find these tidbits in program notes, I get an unshakable mental image: a group of gentlemen in smoking jackets, smoking cigars in a private club, exchanging “I say, old chap, did you know that the first concerto was actually composed second”? They’re chortling to each other, but their back is to you; through the knowledge they share, they exclude the larger group. The tidbits of knowledge are a badge of belonging, even though they do not particularly or centrally illuminate the work in question. For some reason these tidbits have become a habit, even a required element of program notes: I have no idea why.

One might say that knowing things like the name of the piece or conductor or movements is very basic information that the audience should know so that they can follow up on what they heard afterward, if they liked it, and I would agree. Part of the problem with giving this information out in program notes is that it’s highly passive. One of the things that’s great about pop concerts that you will rarely find at a classical concert is how communicative it all is. The musicians often talk to the audience, play with the audience, even enter the audience. The audience often sings along, dances, even talks back. The interconnection between performers and listeners, at a good concert, can be magical. Then you go to a symphony and the most interaction you get is an academic lecture before anyone has actually arrived, applause (when it’s actually allowed), and a bow. Maybe one of the many small things that would help orchestras become intimate with their audience would be doing something as simple as speaking to them and not in academic jargon but simple speech; speech that shows that they’re normal, relatable people too. While I don’t agree with this guy’s ultimate solution to classical music’s problems, he encapsulates how much easier it can be to for an apathetic audience to enjoy a very old piano piece simply be engaging them:

Essentially, concert halls seem to be made into study halls. We don’t go there to listen to the music and experience something communal but to instead study work that we’re told is important and apparently that’s what outsiders see it as too. Michael feels that he needs to be told which part of the music he should be paying attention to but that’s not what music is supposed to be about. We’re simply supposed to listen, to feel, to soak in an experience that’s beyond words, beyond program notes and study guides.


I'm currently working on an MA at the University of Quebec in Montreal. I received BA in linguistics with a minor in music from Tulane University in New Orleans. I also have a background in audio engineering.

Je suis actuellement après travailler sur une maîtrise en linguistique à l'Université du Québec à Montréal. J'ai obtenu un bac à l'Université Tulane à la Nouvelle-Orléans avec une mineure en musique. J'ai également de l'expérience en ingénierie audio.