What is Program Music?

Beethoven's Sixth Symphony The Pastoral is an example of program music.
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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 27 December 2014
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Unlike pure music, which has no reference in the real world and no story component, program music is instrumental music that may tell a story with explicit episodes, reveal facets of a character, place, or occasion, or imitate the sounds of the world. Sometimes, this may take the form of a verbal explanation of the “story” or “program” of the piece. The term was invented by composer Franz Liszt, who understood it to involve a program external to the music that set the parameters and the form in which the musical piece unfolds.

Though Liszt created the term "program music," such music had already been being made before Liszt’s birth in 1811. Perhaps the most famous of the early works that deserve this title is the group of four violin concertos written by Antonio Vivaldi and called The Four Seasons, each one conveying, as one might expect, the sounds, events, and feelings, of winter, spring, summer, and autumn.

Other famous works of this type include the following:



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Post 3

Before reading this article, I couldn't have told you the difference between program and non-program music if you'd held a gun to my head. This is such a cool idea, and I'm glad I know about it now. I feel so much more cultured being able to talk about program music now -- it seems like one of those really cool, esoteric factlets that give you tons of party conversation credit.

Post 2

One of the most interesting modern composers of program music is Kashiwa Daisuke. On his album "Kashiwa Daisuke: Program Music I", there are only two songs, but the album is about an hour long.

A very interesting take on a classic genre of music that is too often forgotten today.

Post 1

Very interesting article -- I never knew that that kind of music was called program music. I wonder if you would say that Vladimir Heifetz's composition for the movie "Battleship Potemkin" is program music?

It can stand on its own as a musical composition, so it's not strictly a soundtrack, but it was used as a soundtrack, so what would you think?

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