How useful to listeners of classical music are program notes. Do they enhance or inhibit the enjoyment and appreciation of the music? Most live performances of classical music offer program notes, with brief commentary about the artists, composers, and the works to be performed, sometimes with historical context. Some radio announcers who present classical music offer almost no commentary, while others offer commentary of varying lengths and informative quality. Does this commentary enhance the listening experience or merely get in the way?
A recent article in the journal Psychology of Music by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis of the University of Arkansas, suggests that commentary about the music to be performed may interfere with the directness and intimacy with which listeners are able to experience a work. It is as though the listener were experiencing the work through someone else's ears. Her research suggests that listeners enjoy the music more without descriptive commentary that with the commentary. Perhaps non-professional listeners try too hard to identify the elements that they are told are present than simply enjoying the experience as a purely sensory, non-verbal experience. It seems that listeners appreciate learning about the circumstances of a work's composition more than information about the work's structure or content.
Obviously, at a live performance the concertgoer can choose to read or not read the program notes, but the listener is captive to a radio performance. Certain kinds of commentary are virtually indispensable in presenting a radio performance. The plot synopsis of an opera, particularly one in a foreign language, is particularly useful to listeners. But most commentary that precedes radio performances of classical music could be eliminated with little or no loss of enjoyment for listeners. Very few listeners care in the least about the harmonic scheme of the Eroica Symphony, but many would find it interesting that legend has it that Beethoven furiously struck out his dedication to Napoleon when Bonaparte assumed the imperial crown. That kind of comment places the work in historical context, tells us something about Beethoven's political views, and gives some insight into the frequently used caption for the Third Symphony.
Especially when a radio announcer is obliged to attend to other kinds of business on the air, probably the less commentary about the programmed piece, the better. As in so many aspects of life, less is usually more.