If you go to a classical performance at a concert hall in 2014, you can count on having program notes slipped into your hands by an usher. It’s a practice so common we rarely stop to question it, although in many other contexts—such as a pop or jazz performance at a club—offering such notes would be odd.

What exactly are the notes achieving?

This is actually part of a larger question in the psychology of music: How does the possession of explicit information about a piece change the way it’s heard?

In a 2010 study, I presented listeners without special musical training short excerpts from Beethoven String Quartets. These excerpts were either preceded by a short description, or presented without accompanying text. And people reported enjoying the excerpts less when they’d read a description beforehand. The music sounded better to them when they’d encountered it innocent of verbal description.

Accounts of peoples’ peak experiences of music have shown that we enjoy being swept away by music, an experience that may be more difficult to achieve when attempting to conceptualize it in terms of the ideas just gleaned from a program note. Additionally, the literature on verbal overshadowing demonstrates that in many cases, verbalizing a description of something—a face, for example—actually makes it harder to recognize later, like when attempting to pick it out of a police lineup.

Music perception may call on faculties that operate best when left to themselves, unmediated by verbal summary. Or maybe verbalization helps, but not at first. It might be that listening to a piece in terms of a particular description requires so much effort that it’s at least initially unpleasant. Perhaps later, once the description has been adequately assimilated, it might enrich the listening experience—and people who’ve studied music theory often report this kind of trajectory.

In a more recent study, we gave elementary school children on a field trip either program notes describing the concert they were about to see, or "placebo" notes describing elements of the architecture and history of the concert hall. We administered surveys immediately following the performance, and children who had read the program notes seemed to have paid more attention and comprehended more about the performance, but the program notes didn’t affect enjoyment much. However, a subgroup of children for whom the performance appeared to be a novel experience did enjoy enjoyed the concert more after reading the program notes beforehand. The more novel and unfamiliar the musical experience is, then, the more helpful program notes might be.

This research suggests that program notes can be negative under some circumstances and positive under others. But since they’re relied upon nearly ubiquitously as a music outreach strategy, more research should be done to assess how their efficacy can be increased.

Gabrielsson, A. (2011). Strong experiences with music: Music is much more than just music (R. Bradbury, Trans.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Margulis, E.H. (2010). When program notes don't help: Music descriptions and enjoyment. Psychology of Music, 38, 285-302.

Margulis, E.H., Kisida, B. & Greene, J. P. (2013). A Knowing Ear: The Effect of Explicit Information on Children's Experience of a Musical Performance. Psychology of Music. doi: 10.1177/0305735613510343.

Schooler, J.W., & Engstler-Schooler, T.Y. (1990). Verbal overshadowing of visual memories: some things are better left unsaid. Cognitive Psychology, 22, 36–71.

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