Program music

Program music

Programme music is a form of art music intended to evoke extra-musical ideas, images in the mind of the listener by musically representing a scene, image or mood [] . By contrast, absolute music stands for itself and is intended to be appreciated without any particular reference to the outside world. The term is almost exclusively applied to works in the European classical music tradition, particularly those from the Romantic music period of the 19th century, during which the concept was popular, but pieces which fit the description have long been a part of music. The term is usually reserved for purely instrumental works (pieces without singers and lyrics), and not used, for example for Opera or Lieder.


Renaissance period

Composers of the Renaissance wrote a fair amount of program music, especially for the harpsichord, including works such as Martin Peerson's "The Fall of the Leafe" and William Byrd's "The Battell". For the latter work, the composer provided this written description of the sections: "Souldiers sommons, marche of footemen, marche of horsmen, trumpetts, Irishe marche, bagpipe and the drone, flute and the droome, marche to the fighte, the battels be joyned, retreat, galliarde for the victorie."'

Classical era

Program music was perhaps less often composed in the Classical era. At this time, perhaps more than any other, music achieved drama from its own internal resources, notably in works written in sonata form. It is thought, however, that a number of Joseph Haydn's earlier symphonies may be program music; for example, the composer once said that one of his earlier symphonies represents "a dialogue between God and the Sinner". It is not known which of his symphonies Haydn was referring to. A minor Classical-era composer, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, wrote a series of symphonies based on Ovid's "Metamorphoses" (not to be confused with Twentieth-Century composer Benjamin Britten's Six Metamorphoses after Ovid).

Romantic period

Program music particularly flourished in Romantic era. As it can invoke in the listener a specific experience other than sitting in front of a musician or musicians, it is related to the purely Romantic idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk describing Wagner's Operas as a fusion of many arts (set design, choreography, poetry and so on), although it relies solely on musical aspects to illustrate a multi-faceted artistic concept such as a poem or a painting. Composers believed that the dynamics of sound that were newly possible in the Romantic orchestra of the era allowed them to focus on emotions and other intangible aspects of life much more than during the Baroque or Classical eras...

Ludwig van Beethoven felt a certain reluctance in writing program music, and said of his 1808 Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral") that the "whole work can be perceived without description – it is more an expression of feelings rather than tone-painting" [] . Yet the work clearly contains depictions of bird calls, a babbling brook, a storm, and so on. Beethoven later returned to program music with his Piano Sonata Op. 81a, "Les Adieux", which depicts the departure and return of his close friend the Archduke Rudolph.

Hector Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" was a musical narration of a hyperbolically emotional love story he wrote himself. Franz Liszt did provide explicit programs for many of his piano pieces but he is also the inventor of the term symphonic poem . In 1874, Modest Mussorgsky composed using only the dynamic range of one piano a series of pieces describing seeing a gallery of ten of his friend's paintings and drawings in his "Pictures at an Exhibition", later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns wrote many short pieces of program music which he called "Tone Poems". His most famous are probably the Danse Macabre and several movements from "the Carnival of the Animals". The composer Paul Dukas is perhaps best known for his tone poem "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", based on a tale from Goethe.

Possibly the most adept at musical depiction in his program music was the German composer Richard Strauss, whose symphonic poems include "Tod und Verklärung" (portraying a dying man and his entry into heaven), "Don Juan" (based on the ancient legend of Don Juan), "Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche" (based on episodes in the career of the legendary German figure Till Eulenspiegel), "Don Quixote" (portraying episodes in the life of Cervantes' character, Don Quixote), "Ein Heldenleben" (which depicts episodes in the life of an unnamed hero often taken to be Strauss himself) and "Sinfonia Domestica" (which portrays episodes in the composer's own married life, including putting the baby to bed). Strauss is reported to have said that music can describe anything, even a teaspoon! [cite web|url=|title=Richard Strauss Biography|accessdate=2006-04-26]

One of the most famous programs, because it has never been definitively discovered, is the secret non-musical idea or theme - the "Enigma" - which underlies Edward Elgar's "Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma)" of 1899. The composer disclosed it to certain friends, but at his request they never made it public.

Twentieth century

In the twentieth century, Alban Berg's "Lyric Suite" was thought for years to be abstract music, but in 1977 it was discovered that it was in fact dedicated to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. [ cite book | last = Perle | first = George | title = The Operas of Alban Berg: Volume Two, Lulu | publisher = University of California Press | date = 1985 | location = California | pages = 18-29|id = ISBN 0-520-06616-2 ] Important leitmotifs are based the melodic series A–B–H–F, which is their combined initials. The last movement also contains a setting of a poem by Baudelaire, suppressed by the composer for publication [] .

The Wind Ensemble piece, Winds of Nagual by Michael Colgrass is an important late-20th Century work of program music.what the mali met tto

Popular music as program music

The term "program music" is not generally used with regard to popular music, although some popular music does have aspects in common with program music. The tradition of purely orchestral program music is continued in pieces for jazz orchestra, most notably several pieces by Duke Ellington. Instrumental pieces in popular music often have a descriptive title which suggests that they could be categorized as program music, and several instrumental albums are completely devoted to some programmatic idea (for example, China by Vangelis or The Songs of Distant Earth by Mike Oldfield). Some of the genres of popular music are more likely than others to involve programmatic elements; these include ambient, new age, space music, surf rock, jazz fusion, progressive rock, art rock and various genres of techno music.

Progressive rock groups and musicians during the 1970s in particular experimented with program music, among which was Rush's "Jacob's Ladder" (1980), which shows clear influences of Smetana's "Má vlast" ("My Homeland") (1874-1879).


Some people and theories argue that there is indeed no such thing as true "absolute ("ars gratia artis") music" and that music always at least conveys or evokes emotions. While non-professional listeners often claim that music has meaning (to them), "new" musicologists, such as Susan McClary (1999), argue that so called "abstract" techniques and structures are actually highly politically and socially charged, specifically, even gendered. This may be linked to a more general argument against abstraction, such as Mark Johnson's argument that it is, "necessary...for abstract have a bodily basis." (McClary, 1991) However, a more loosely specific definition of absolute music as music which was not composed with a programatic intent or plan in mind may be adopted.

More traditional listeners often reject these views sharply, asserting that music can be meaningful, as well as deeply emotional, while being essentially about itself (notes, themes, keys, and so on), and without any connection to the political and societal conflicts of our own day.

Program Music in the Western Canon

Baroque and Classical Eras

Most music from the Baroque and Classical eras is absolute, as is suggested by titles which often consist simply of the type of composition, a numerical designation within the composer's oeuvre, and its key. Bach's Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C Minor, BWV 1060; Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major (Opus 92) are all examples of absolute music.

Romantic Era

Program music was quite popular during the Romantic era. Many mainstream "classical" works are unequivocally program music, such as Richard Strauss's "An Alpine Symphony," which is a musical description of ascending and descending a mountain, with 22 section titles such as "Night," "Sunrise," "By the Waterfall," "In Thicket and Underbrush on the Wrong Path," "Summit," "Mists Rise," and "Storm and Descent." Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 is clearly program music, too, with titled movements and instrumental depictions of bird calls, country dances, and a storm. Some might criticize Disney's animators for providing a pictorial interpretation of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but nobody can deny an extramusical association for Dukas's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Modern Era

During the twentieth century, the increased influence of modernism and other anti-Romantic trends contributed to a decline in esteem for program music, but audiences continued to enjoy such pieces as Arthur Honegger's depiction of a steam locomotive in Pacific 231. Indeed, Percy Grainger's incomplete orchestral fragment Train Music employs the same function. This music for large orchestra depicts a train moving in the mountains of Italy.

Opera and ballet

Music that is composed to accompany opera and ballet is, of course, program music, even when presented separately as a concert piece. Aaron Copland was amused when a listener said that when she listened to "Appalachian Spring" she "could see the Appalachians and feel Spring," the title having been a last-minute thought, but it is certainly program music. Film scores are always program music, and some of them, such as Prokofiev's music for "Alexander Nevsky", have found a place in the classical concert repertoire.

Programmatic music and abstract imagery

A good deal of program music falls in between the realm of purely programmatic and purely absolute, with titles that clearly suggest an extramusical association, but no detailed story that can be followed and no musical passages that can be unequivocally identified with specific images. Examples would include Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" or Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, "Eroica".

Popular music

Because the overwhelming majority of Western popular music is in song form, it would seem that most popular music is programmatic by nature: it has lyrics, therefore it is about something other than the music itself. The strong stylistic constraints of many popular forms, however, constrict the ability of the music itself to portray extramusical ideas, specific or abstract, and the music is arguably non-programmatic.

A common term for non-vocal popular music, and thus for practical purposes a term for absolute music in a popular context, is "instrumental" or "instrumental section".

While the debate is of interest to many, for practical purposes most scholars use the term "program music" in the narrower sense described above. It was popular in the 19th century.

Motion picture soundtrack

Influenced by the late Romantic work of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Ottorino Respighi, Richard Strauss, and others, motion picture soundtrack took up the banner of programmatic music following the advent of "talkies." Many film composers, including Paul Smith, Morricone, and John Williams (whose soundtrack to Star Wars in 1977 redefined the symphonic movie score) have followed the programmatic model and solidified motion picture soundtrack as its own programmatic genre.

ymphonic poems

Single movement orchestral pieces of program music are often called symphonic poems.

ee also

*List of program music
*Concept album
*Space music
*New Age music
*Ambient music
*20th century classical music


* [ Program music]
* [ Essentials of Music: Composers: Vivaldi]
* [ Apollo's Fire (Cleveland Baroque Orchestra): Program Note for: Beethoven & Schubert in Vienna]
* [ AllMusicGuide Review of Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, for string quartet] by James Reel
* [ Review of Alban Berg: Lyric Suite] by Kronos Quarter with Dawn Upshaw
*McClary, Susan (1991). "Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality", p.24. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1898-4.

Further reading

*Junod, Philippe. "The New "Paragone": Paradoxes and Contradictions of Pictorial Musicalism", in "The Arts Entwined: Music and Painting in the Nineteenth Century", eds. M.L. Morton and P.L. Schmunk, p.28-29

External links

* [ Art of the States: programmatic] programmatic works by American composers
* [ Information on "The Kaidan Suite," a musical interpretation of Japanese ghost stories by the Kitsune Ensemble.]


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • program music — music intended to convey an impression of a definite series of images, scenes, or events. Cf. absolute music. [1880 85] * * *       instrumental music that carries some extramusical meaning, some “program” of literary idea, legend, scenic… …   Universalium

  • program music — n. instrumental music that is meant to depict or suggest a mood or emotion, or a scene, story, or actual event: cf. ABSOLUTE MUSIC …   English World dictionary

  • program music — program ,music noun uncount music that describes a picture, a story, or an idea …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • program music — англ. [про/угрэм мьюзик] Programmusik нем. [програ/ммузи/к] програмная музыка …   Словарь иностранных музыкальных терминов

  • program music — noun musical compositions intended to evoke images or remind the listener of events • Syn: ↑programme music • Hypernyms: ↑musical composition, ↑opus, ↑composition, ↑piece, ↑piece of music * * * ˈprogramme music 7 …   Useful english dictionary

  • program music — noun Date: 1879 music intended to suggest a sequence of images or incidents …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • program music — noun A form of art music that attempts to convey a scene, image, or mood …   Wiktionary

  • program music — pro′gram mu sic n. mad music intended to convey an impression of a definite series of images, scenes, or events • Etymology: 1880–85 …   From formal English to slang

  • List of program music — Program music is a term usually applied to orchestral music in the classical music tradition in which the piece is designed according to some preconceived narrative, or is designed to evoke a specific concrete idea. This is distinct from the more …   Wikipedia

  • Music Industry Arts — Established 1970 Type Public Location London …   Wikipedia

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