Programme Notes: a New Infographic Approach

Reflections on the most underestimated tool in the classical music audience’s experience

by Gabriele Montanaro* with Gabriele Mo 
and Michele Mo, Giampaolo Pretto, Marina Maffei, Francesco Cristiani**

Programme notes are paper or downloadable tools that any classical orchestra, festival or concert society provides to its audience, trying to enhance the audience’s comprehension of the concert. Along with biographical information about the performers, they usually seek to give the audience a sense of the history of the work and its composer, a commentary on different aspects of the music, and an idea of what to expect while hearing the piece.

A quick empirical analysis of different programme notes will demonstrate that this tool has remained basically unchanged in the last 30–40 years. Musicologists and compilers who specialise in classical music often write without specific attention to the needs of the general audience. Moreover, budget considerations lead many musical institutions to reuse programme notes written many years ago; the development of written language that is clearly evident in communication, marketing and fundraising seems not to affect the critical texts in the programme notes. While communication instruments, graphical approaches, text reading and attention spans have completely changed in the last decades, programme notes remain unaltered in a continuously-changing landscape.

The necessity of an audience-based approach

Every set of programme notes should strive to answer these two questions: (1) How does the audience use this tool? (2) What information does the audience need to know most?

Even earlier, some effort should be made to underscore the importance of using and reading the programme notes. A lot of time and resources have usually been spent on other kinds of educational approaches, but it is rare to find a communication strategy focused on the importance of reading the programme notes. Members of the audience should be reminded of the usefulness of having (for free or at a small cost) a unique ‘travel guide’ to use before or during the concert.

That said, it is important to note that not every person uses the programme notes in the same way. Some people will have the time (or the interest) to download the programme notes in advance or to read them carefully before the concert begins. Some people won’t, trying to recover the noteworthy information in real time, often in a dark concert hall while the music is flowing.

Nowadays statistical studies, based on demographic criteria or frequency of attendance criteria, have made information about the composition of audiences much more easily available. Less is known, though, about the public’s knowledge of classical music. Nevertheless, it is clear that many people, even regular audience members, do not have much understanding of the language of classical music.[1] The difference between a symphony, a concerto, a concerto grosso, a suite, an overture, or a sonata is unclear and irrelevant to most of the audience, as is the difference between musical periods (baroque, classical, romantic, modern, etc.) and the location of different composers within these periods.

Thus, it is vital to remember that, even with a programme note at hand, many people in the audience do not have the resources to imagine in advance what they are going to hear in a few minutes. And, for the most part, this is also true when the public chooses one concert in a season or festival over another: people often trust a specific institution, they check if the date and time fit with their schedule, and they probably know the names of some top composers or performers, but the majority of people in the audience lack the cognitive instruments to imagine specific features of the music they are going to hear. This observation should not be ignored, and more effort should be made to imagine a new kind of audience-based approach.

Key elements in programme notes’ contents

In order to provide truly audience-based programme notes, it is fundamental to recognise that the classical-music audience, too often considered as a shapeless crowd, is in fact a manifold and complex totality of very different individuals with very specific needs and expecations. A detailed characterisation of different types of classical-music audiences has been proposed elsewhere.[2] On this basis, programme notes should also be consistent with the plurality of the audience, and should become tools that are able to identify and target as many audience prototypes as possible, address their needs and expectations, and overcome the obstacles by providing specific and differentiated information.

One possible approach consists of providing the audience with increasingly detailed or specialised information, clearly divided and graphically distinct in the programme: some basic information will be spotted immediately, others will require some more attention, and some will be read only by experts. This approach permits audience members to find the highlights quickly and easily (e.g., when the concert has already started) without being distracted by more specific information. Another possible strategy consists of organising information according to the different prototypes’ needs and expectations, trying to give an interesting slant to each specific one. This approach permits the audience to easily find the information most in keeping with its needs and interests.

Any institution has to find its own balance between these different needs, but the presence of some key elements should always be considered:

  • Duration. Nowadays, there is no media content people enjoy daily (from a YouTube video to a movie, from a song to an episode of a television series) without knowing its duration in advance. In a society where the most valuable treasure is not time but attention, knowing the duration of a piece helps to spread (or focus) the residual concentration, and this is even more true during a classical music performance. The listening approach to a piece is very different when people know in advance whether it lasts four minutes or forty: if for an expert the duration is implicit in the piece’s title or author (a symphony by Vivaldi will last 10 minutes; a symphony by Haydn, 20–30 minutes; a Mahler symphony, one hour), for other audience prototypes this is not necessarily the case. Moreover, it makes a considerable difference to read a programme notes section understanding whether it is related to a music passage that will last 1 minute or 10; with this knowledge, the reader will distribute his attention differently. Moreover, knowing the duration of any individual piece can also help to understand how the whole concert has been imagined and conceived.
  • Temporal and geographical positioning. For an expert, a baroque piece (even if he does not know the specific piece or author) will suggest a specific climax: he will expect the piece to sound a particular, well-known way. The same is true of a classical period piece, or a romantic, or a contemporary one. Even if there are lots of differences within the same period, and within the corpus of any composer, any musical period clearly defines, in a very general way, what part of the audience expects to hear. Knowing that Geminiani and Corelli are both baroque composers is certainly more significant for many people in the public than knowing the subtle differences in their styles. The same is true for the geographic positioning of the composer: a Scandinavian composer will sound quite different from a Spanish or a Venezuelan composer. This information is part of the unspoken background any classical music expert possesses, but this is not true of all the audience: clearly locating any composer in a time and place could help to simplify the association between something the audience has already heard and something that is new.
  • Tags. In the tag era, pictures, posts, articles and concepts are tagged (or hashtagged). Tags constitute a useful way to organise an enormous amount of widely-disseminated information. It could be useful to introduce this system to programme notes as well, tagging key information about the music or the composer. A tagging system based on a clear and a shared code, applied to the whole concert season (or festival, or event), could be extremely helpful in transmitting complex information or summarising a long series of concepts.
  • Definitions. Concerto no. 3 in G major for violin and orchestra K 216 by Mozart and Symphony no. 40 in G minor K 550 by Mozart: in a diverse audience, only a few people would understand, just based on the titles, that in the first piece a soloist will play a leading role while in the second there is no soloist, or that the first one will have three movements while the second has four, or why it is relevant to know that the first piece is in G major and the second is in G minor, and what that means. Thus, defining and clarifying the basic terminology of classical music should be also an important part of the programme notes.

A new infographic approach

On the basis of these considerations, after in-depth research of the subject matter and a detailed study of different graphical solutions, together with colleagues from the Orchestra Filarmonica di Torino, we have decided to introduce a completely new infographic approach to summarising some of the basic concepts analysed above. After all, people are used to reading and understanding simple graphics and schemes: underground maps, newspaper pages, on-screen text during a sports match or news broadcast. Complex information is often condensed and simplified using simple visual tools. The goal is to condense into one programme page different information that the audience could take in at first sight, eventually using some of the key elements suggested (duration, geographic and temporal location, tags, etc.). It is an approach that could also be used alongside traditional programme notes, supplementing, transferring or re-organising the pivotal information.

According to this aim, the new programme notes we have developed present in a single page — alongside more traditional programme text — the author of each piece, together with the date of birth and death and the country (or countries) where he or she primarily lived and worked. The list of movements and the duration of each piece have been also furnished, with a round graphical icon showing the ratio between the duration of a single piece and that of the entire concert. Moreover, we introduced a simple tag system to locate each piece within the proper period, placed side by side with the date of composition of each piece, and completed (at the bottom of the page) with a visual legend that arranges the periods in a precise horizontal timeline. Finally, through a simple icon coding system, we include in this scheme concise textual information, such as definitions of musical forms and terms, peculiarities of composers or musical styles, relevant historical events related to the pieces in the programme, and listening recommendations. Some examples of this new infographic style are provided below (Fig. 1 a-b-c).

Figure 1 (a-b-c). The present infographics — based on concerts performed by the Orchestra Filarmonica di Torino in October, November and December 2018 — are designed for two facing pages of 20x10 cm each. The timeline is compiled according to the usual repertoire of the orchestra: baroque, 1600–1750 (eventually specified as early or late baroque); classical, 1750–1820; romantic, 1815–1910 (eventually specified as early or late romantic); modern, 1890–1945; contemporary, 1945–2018. The text boxes herein presented (in Italian) furnish brief definitions of symphony, concerto grosso, concerto, minimalism; some historical events occurred in 1828 and 1732; an alert about the musical style of Adélaïde-Konzert; an explanation regarding Haydn’s Hoboken catalogue.

The transition to Creative Commons Licences

To complete the line of reasoning on this new and usable programme note, we decided to abandon the ‘all rights reserved’ policy, as widespread in classical music as it is unfeasible in the web and social media era, in order to make the content available through Creative Commons Licenses 4.0 International (currently under license CC BY-NC-ND). We argue that the creation of a pool of well-finished critical texts, written with a strong attention to current language and the audience’s reading capacity, and sharable, according to the licence, for non-commercial purposes at no extra cost, will promote, within a few years, a strong innovation in the quality and legibility of commentary and information in programme notes.


Starting from a reflection on the needs of classical-music audiences and identifying some key elements for an audience-based evolution in the content of programme notes, we proposed an innovative infographic approach to be used for programme notes in addition to the traditional textual content. This innovative approach allows us to furnish — with the help of different visual tools — a complete set of information, easily legible and sharable, that makes it easy to find the main features of the programme even after the concert has already started, and is able to address the different information needs of different audience members at the same time. Moreover, we argue that this approach will gradually create a common glossary and a pool of shared knowledge among the audience. Finally, we firmly believe this approach will permit institutions to better meet the real needs of a diverse audience, respecting each person’s level of knowledge and becoming a powerful tool for audience engagement, pleasure and integration. This progress will surely be reflected in the real usability of this tool by the whole audience of our orchestra and any other orchestras that would like to join us in this approach.

[1] Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study — How Americans Relate to Classical Music and Their Local Orchestras (October 2002). A study commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and 15 American orchestras shows that between 16% (subscribers) and 27% (single-ticket buyers) of the audience self-describes as ‘not very knowledgable,’ and between 60% (subscribers) and 56% (single-ticket buyers) only as ‘somewhat knowledgable’. Even if most classical consumers, and almost all orchestra ticket buyers, are interested in learning more about the art form, people who are already ‘very knowledgable’ about classical music are most likely to be ‘very interested’ in learning more.

[2] Gabriele Montanaro, Classical Music Audience Prototypes — The centrality of the “live performance phase” for a long-lasting Audience Engagement (November 2018). Self-published on Medium here.

* About the corresponding author:
Gabriele Montanaro (Turin, 1981) is a creator and producer of cultural and musical events. He is educated in both music and science, his experience ranging from various journalistic positions and storytelling activities to his current position at Orchestra Filarmonica di Torino, where he is Artistic Manager Assistant and Production Manager. He also serves as member of the Board of Directors of Fondazione Teatro Ragazzi e Giovani ONLUS.
[for contact or comments: montanaromusic at gmail dot com]

** Contributions and aknowledgments
This article is the result of a long series of brainstorming sessions and productive discussions within the whole team of Orchestra Filarmonica di Torino. In particular, the infographic approach herein proposed has been graphically conceived and entirely realised by Mr. Gabriele Mo. The main considerations proposed herein would not be possible without the valuable contributions of Prof. Michele Mo (President and Artistic Director), Mr. Giampaolo Pretto (Musical Director), Ms. Marina Maffei (Head of Communication and Press) and Mr. Francesco Cristiani (trainee). The passage under Creative Commons Licences for the critical texts of the Orchestra Filarmonica di Torino programmes has been kindly authorised by Prof. Stefano Catucci.

Published on 03rd December 2018
Cover illustration specifically realized by Gabriele Mo