Saturday, May 01, 2010

Can reading program notes reduce your enjoyment of music?

The latest issue of Psychology of Music includes an interesting study by Lisa Margulis (University of Arkansas) who decided to investigate what the effects are of the widespread practice of including program notes for classical concerts on musical experience.

In this study, the researchers presented people without formal musical training excerpts from Beethoven String Quartets prefaced by either a dramatic description, a structural description, or no description al all. Consequently, they were asked to rate their enjoyment of the music, and in a later stage, to recall excerpts and descriptions.

What would you expect the results were?

The results show a significant negative effect of description, suggesting that prefacing an excerpt with a text description reduces enjoyment of the music. In the end Margulis gently summarizes the findings as ‘conceptualizing listening by connecting it to linguistically named correlates (a practice fundamental to music training) may have more multifarious (and not always straightforwardly beneficial) effects on musical experience than commonly assumed.’ Yet another case that ‘to know more’ is not always ‘to hear more’.

For details and potential implications of the study, listen to item from WNYC radio:

ResearchBlogging.orgMargulis, E. (2010). When program notes don't help: Music descriptions and enjoyment Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735609351921


  1. Very interesting. I myself have always been positive to such notes, but then again my evidence for the effect is anecdotal at best. But then again, I do have some formal musical training myself. Maybe that does make a difference?

  2. (Earlier I made a similar comment on Facebook.)
    There is something about notes and audiences wanting notes. As a thought experiment: imagine a dance or pop music audience being handed out program notes at the entrance of the hall. It would put them off or they would just laugh. Even if the music would be very experimental as in some IDM this is what can be expected.
    Is it possible that in the established arts newcomers want to be taught by "officials", while in pop/rock/dance concerts this would be associated with hierarchy and paternalism? And for that reason peer to peer education is the dominant form in the latter concerts?
    Moreover, could it be that the teacher-student relation of which the program notes are an expression adds a bit to the feelings of insecurity and therefore spoils part of the enjoyment?

  3. I'm a private music instructor and commonly experience my students being turned off by certain songs and pieces based on information that I give them prior to learning (artist/band name, date of composition, key/time signature, lyrical concept, etc.). Perhaps this is a result of mental over-stimulation ("This sounds like too much work to learn." or, "Just give me a good sounding song that I can play!") Then there is always the myth that knowledge of music theory takes all of the enjoyment out of music making. Perhaps a concert-going audience would suppose that knowledge of the piece being performed would take the fun out of the listening experience. This makes perfect sense if the listener doesn't have a music education background - all of that information can sound dry and technical, the exact opposite of what good music is supposed to be.

  4. It seems to me that this preliminary study needs to be followed by study of more various types of program notes.

    The program notes used in this study struck me immediately as bad. Good program notes for general audience should focus on the cultural context and relate the artists as people and not give away the musical details. The notes in this study were comparable to watching lengthy trailers and summaries of movie plots before watching the film. I find it obnoxious when I see highlight clips on a DVD introduction to the movie I am about to watch. On the other hand, I like introductions that set the scene or let me know that the movie is from a certain year or country.

    I think the entire issue is about what makes program notes good, not about whether they are good or not.