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Reading the Program

At most concerts, each listener receives a printed program that says what will happen. This program may be as simple as a piece of paper or as elaborate as a book. Look for the “program page” that lists the music to be played. (If the program is a booklet, this page is usually in the middle somewhere. Some booklets include programs for several concerts.)


Since classical music comes from different times and places, the titles on the program page will often be in foreign languages. You might encounter different ways of titling the same piece, and even different spellings for a composer’s name. (Classical music originated before the age of standardization, back when a word might have three different spellings on the same page!)

A piece might have a main title followed by a list of its sections, rather like a book’s name followed by its chapters.

Different kinds of titles

Naming the piece:   On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Belshazzar’s Feast
Quartet for the End of Time
Naming the type of piece:   Symphony No. 6
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Sextet in B-flat
Naming the expressive character:   Adagio misterioso (slow & mysterious)
Allegro (lively)
Traditional nicknames:   Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
“Eroica” Symphony

Personnel List

Orchestral programs usually list the players and the instruments they play. Sometimes the list doesn’t exactly match the players. There may be last-minute substitutions, or, for large pieces, extra players may have been hired. An orchestra’s string players may be listed in alphabetical order, not by where they sit.

I heard that the composer Darius Milhaud and his wife pronounced his last name in two different ways. One said mee-OH, and the other said mee-LOH. Now when I hear an argument about the right way to pronounce some word, it’s hard for me to take it too seriously.

It can be fun to match the list to the instruments and people you see on the stage. Many concertgoers enjoy learning to recognize different musicians and what they play.


Programs often include information about the featured performers. This is where you find out where else they have appeared, what recordings they have made, and what honors they have received. Don’t expect to find many personal revelations; such biographies are usually written to impress you with the performer’s professional accomplishments. Many performers also have their own web sites, where you can learn more about them.

Program Notes

Some programs include short essays about the music, about the composer, or about the historical context. Some program notes describe what will happen in the music; some analyze the music or present historical background.

If information helps you enjoy music more, consider arriving at the concert early enough to read the program notes before the performance. Some organizations make their program notes available in advance of the concert, mailing them to ticket holders or posting them online. But beware: Although many program-note writers provide lively and insightful essays, some program notes might obstruct your enjoyment. If you don’t find the program notes helpful, just ignore them!

Pronunciation (don’t worry)

Classical music concerts are full of professional jargon, esoteric terminology, and foreign words. Don’t worry about how to say everything. Some of these words are pronounced differently in different places, anyway.



Program Guide Key

  1. There are three pieces in the concert.
  2. The first piece doesn’t have any separate sections listed, so it will probably be one continuous piece of music.
  3. The second piece is divided into three sections, or “movements.” Probably they will be separate and easy to count (so you’ll know know when to clap at the very end), but occasionally a composer pulls a trick and connects two movements without any silence in between.

    These movement titles are the composer’s indications of the speed and character of each movement. The titles might be in any language, but most often they are in Italian, the first international language of music.
  4. Five movements.
  5. “Op.” or “Opus” means “Work.” This is either the composer’s 63rd published composition, or the 63rd piece that he wrote.
  6. This is a catalog number. After Mozart died, a man named Köchel catalogued his compositions and gave each one a number, roughly in the order they were composed. A few other composers’ works have catalog numbers, usually with initials indicating who organized the catalog.
  7. “Lively”
  8. “Walking tempo but slow”
  9. “Rondo [see glossary] at the speed of a Minuet”
  10. The name of the soloist in this piece.
  11. For modern works, sometimes the year of composition is given instead of an opus number or catalog number.
  12. The first movement starts out “Slow,” but changes to “Lively.”
  13. “Walking tempo”
  14. “Majestic”
  15. “Scherzo” is a kind of movement [see glossary.] This Scherzo is to be played
    “Lively and furious.”
  16. “Finale: very lively”

Introduction to Classical Music
  Music Categories
  Musical Instruments
  History of Classical Music
  Discover the Classics
     Vol. 1 | Vol. 2 | Vol. 3 | Vol. 4

Glossary of Musical Terms

A-Z of Opera
  Synopses of Opera
  Index of Operas by Composer
  Opera Libretti

How To Enjoy A Live Concert
  A Note from the Author
  The Listener's Job Description
  Part 1: Before the Concert
  Choosing a Concert 
Kinds of Concerts 
Styles of Presentation: Formal, Informal, and Beyond 
Buying a Ticket
Sections of the Theater 
Getting Ready 
Getting There 
  Part 2: At the Concert
  "Concert Manners" 
The Concert Ritual 
Reading the Program 
Instruments of the Orchestra 
Ways to Listen 
Meeting the Performers 
Essential Life Support 
  A Brief Glossary

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