Program Music Facts

Music has long been used to tell stories, and the pieces referred to as program music take special care to evoke specific emotions, characters, places or occasions. The term was invented by composer Frans Liszt, who was born in 1811, but examples of this type of music can be found all the way back to the Renaissance period, long before his birth.

Program music vs. pure music

In order to be considered program music, as opposed to "pure" or 'absolute' music, a piece must specifically intend to tell a story, illustrate an idea, or evoke a visual scene. Many pieces of program music are inspired by literary works, such as 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Don Quixote'.

On the other hand, pure music's intention is simply to be enjoyable for its own sake, or satisfying to the ears. Some music theorists argue, however, that there is no such thing as absolute music, because all music evokes images to listeners in one way or another.

Program music is primarily instrumental, but has sometimes been accompanied by verbal explanations of the story being told to listeners.

Modern popular music could be argued to be program music in a way, because it often contains lyrics that tell a story or convey emotions. However, the musical constraints of popular music do not often allow the music to tell as much of a story as the lyrics do. The consensus is that a piece's status as program music has more to do with its musical qualities than with its lyrics.

Examples of program music

One way program music has survived to the modern day is through movie scores, or incidental music used in movies and television. These pieces are formulated specifically to make viewers feel a certain way, and to illustrate scenes musically while they are also being illustrated visually. Some specific examples of program music include:

  • 'Don Juan', by German composer Richard Strauss, based on the legend of Don Juan. Strauss composed several other program pieces in his time, including 'Death and Transfiguration', about a dying man and his entrance into heaven.
  • 'Scheherazade', by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, named after the famous storyteller in the 'Thousand and One Nights', and portraying several of her stories. Rimsky-Korsakov also composed 'Flight of the Bumblebee', another popular piece of program music.
  • 'Winds of Nagual', composed by Michael Colgrass, is considered one of the most popular pieces of program music of the late 20th century. This wind ensemble piece is also based on 'Don Juan' and other works by Carlos Castaneda, and contains seven movements that evoke seven different scenes.

While the line separating program music and pure music can sometimes be fuzzy, program music is distinguishable both by what it makes its audience feel, and the intention of the composer.

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