While many do not know what precisely program music is, chances are you’ve seen it in action. That’s because perhaps the most famous example of program music is Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
Not all Disney’s musical selections were written to be programmatic. Still, many became so ubiquitous that you can’t hear, for instance, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice without picturing a cartoon mouse harangued by an army of brooms.
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For most musicians, the working program music definition is any music designed to tell a story.
You may well ask, doesn’t all music do that? But the answer is no. Much of early classical music is what musicians call ‘abstract.’ All it has to do is create an atmosphere.
Conversely, program music elicits specific feelings and responses from its audience. Often, but not always, it comprises several movements that capture the shifts in mood, from, for instance, a tranquil opening to a raucous middle, as the narrative tension builds.
Another famous example of program music that illustrates this point is Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring.
Since all program music needs to make it program music by definition is tell a story, it doesn’t have as many recognizable features as, for instance, romantic music.
But two things are consistent, whatever the piece. Program music has a source text such as:
- Short Story
This source text inspires the story the composer sets out to illustrate with music.
Program music is also predominantly instrumental. It’s different from opera or lieder in that it relies on the orchestration, not words, to tell a story.
Since program music can take all shapes and forms, it’s helpful to look at examples of how it changed over time. Here are some of the most famous pieces of program music.
Britten’s Four Sea Interludes are the result of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. The interludes condense the opera plot and use only instrumentation to tell the devastating story of how a village turns on one of its occupants.
The piece features four movements. But because the opera comprised more scenes, Britten omitted some of the emotional moments to help this symphonic poem stand alone.
In Dawn, Britten combines the opera’s prologue with the opening of Act I of Peter Grimes. He uses three distinct instrumental themes in this section. The violins and flutes play a tranquil, legato theme that remains essentially unchanged. It contrasts with the rippling line of arpeggios played by the clarinets, harp, and violas. These are our first hints at the unease that threatens Grimes.
Both sections are sporadically interrupted by the final harmonic section, which features deeper-voiced instruments like cellos and brasses. They play a disquieting, ominous theme that threatens to overwhelm the others.
Sunday Morning is the second movement, and in it, Britten paints the sound of church bells through the use of major thirds. To create the clashing of brass bells, Britten uses unlikely and atypical brass combinations. As the movement progresses, these become replaced by actual bells.
Smaller bells and handbells get represented by the lighter strings and woodwinds, except for the flute, which warbles to create orchestral birdsong.
In Moonlight, the bells give way to Grimes’ impulsive, misanthropic nature. As he meditates on the murder of his apprentice, Britten sketches his unease through an inverted second, a chord built on the dominant or fifth of the scale.
Storm is the final movement. It is long, solemn, and mournful. With Grimes now exiled to sea, the villagers first stand by to watch him drown in the oncoming storm and then retire to the pub. The music here is appropriately ponderous and slow but occasionally punctuates this slower line with dissonant chords.
Aaron Copeland is one of the most recognizable American composers of program music, and Rodeo is one of his most immediately identifiable pieces.
Sometimes called a ‘cowboy ballet,’ Rodeo continues Copeland’s move away from atonality towards a more recognizable and accessible kind of classical music.
Its best-known movement, Hoe-Down, features characteristic American fiddle music typical of barn dances and hoe-downs.
But it also showcases traditional American folk songs as Copeland continues the fashion for creating nationally-driven classical music.
The story in Rodeo is a love story. The first movement, Buckaroo Holiday, introduces listeners and ballet attendees to the characters. The young, female protagonist meets and falls in love with one of the ranchers, and the story begins.
Unhelpfully, her chosen paramour’s attention is elsewhere, and the second movement, Corral Nocturne, uses minor intervals and keys in addition to slower music to indicate the young woman’s sadness.
Saturday Night Waltz builds on this theme, as in the way of waltzes, everyone couples up, except the lovestruck young woman. It’s a melancholy but romantic movement. It gradually segues into a faster-moving piece, inspired by the melody I Ride the Old Paint, which finally gets her noticed.
Unlike in the Sea Interludes, love triumphs here. In the familiar Hoe-Down, the music strikes up and ends with a dance and a kiss. It’s a movement guaranteed to send listeners away humming.
Dvorak's New World Symphony owes its nickname to the fact Dvorak composed it while employed by the National Conservatory of Music in America.
Accordingly, the symphony builds on his impressions of America and incorporates themes inspired by American folk music, especially Native American and Spiritual songs, which fascinated him.
But it also features a largo in the second movement that, in a moment of nostalgia, looks back with aching sweetness on the ‘Old World’ or the British Empire America long-since had severed ties with.
This comes through in a much-debated theme often attributed to the spiritual Goin’ Home. However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that a student of Dvorak's put words to this haunting melody.
It segues into a funeral march, and as the old world dies, the new one emerges. In it, we get what is perhaps the most programmatic movement of the piece, as the music illustrates Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha.
Except for the third movement, with its Longfellow homage, Dvorak’s symphony is primarily program music in that it distills a sense of place rather than a specific narrative.
Claude Debussy almost always wrote program music, and the result is that he significantly shaped our understanding of it. In L’Apres Midi D’un Faune, was inspired by Stephane Mallarme’s poem of the same name.
In it, the flute plays the part of the Faun as it chases nymphs through a grove.
In direct contrast to composers like Wagner, Debussy focuses on long sustained chords and solo orchestration. He wanted to avoid what he perceived as overly-cluttered music with its vogue for the leitmotif. Instead, he instills an atmosphere of intimacy and Romanticism by taking a much more intimate approach.
It perfectly suits Mallarme’s poem, which is imagistic and heavily symbolic.
Debussy’s piece is a tone poem. In addition to eschewing leitmotif, it also sidesteps the classic argumentative or conversational structure of symphonies. But that’s not to say it’s without shape. The languid Faun’s melody gives way to a passionate middle section before meandering back to the opening melody again.
Subtitled A Tone Poem for Orchestra, Gershwin’s An American in Paris is a piece of program music that, like Dvorak's New World Symphony, evokes the senses and impressions of a place in time.
Jaunty and jubilant, Gershwin described his composition as a ‘rhapsodic ballet.’ And like many Gershwin tunes, this is music to dance to. Indeed, when incorporated into the musical by the same name, people did dance to it.
Gershwin wrote the piece while in Paris after receiving a commission for a concerto. In Paris, Stravinsky and Ravel were reluctant to reinvent the musical wheel, given Gershwin’s considerable skill, so they didn’t try to retrain him.
Instead, the asked-for concerto incorporates complex jazz harmonies and eclectic orchestral sounds to paint a picture of time and place. Among other things, listeners can keep their ears tuned for:
- Taxi horns
- Orchestral haling of a prostitute
- Blue notes and blues-influenced sounds
In addition to these atypical orchestral sounds, Gershwin grounds the piece with a poignant, homesick melody that lightens and lifts as the eponymous American encounters a fellow citizen in Paris’ busy, bustling city.
Camille Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals is another famous example of program music. It’s popular as an introduction for young children because they can have fun listening out for the different animals.
Throughout Saint-Saens’ suite, he showcases:
- Hens and roosters
- Wild Donkeys
Carnival of the Animals also experiments with some unlikely animal combinations, including the playful movement Pianists. Here musicians become animals, and the audience witnesses all the finger exercises and practicing not featured at concerts.
All the animals come together for the conclusion, where they parade in majesty. There are also various allusions to older classical music pieces scattered throughout.
In the Hens section, we hear baroque composer Rameau’s harpsichord piece La Poule. Tortouse, the movement for the slow but steady tortoise, takes Offenbach's famous can-can and, instead of playing it at a gallop, holds each note for an overexaggerated lugubrious feel.
Fossils quotes a whole range of pieces, not least of them Saint-Saens own Danse Macabre. In addition to laughing at himself, he pokes fun at:
J’ai du Bon Tabac
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Au Clair de la Lune
Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, Rossini’s Una Voce Poco Fa.
Years later, Ogden Nash, a humorist, and poet composed verses for each of the 14 movements. They’re as tongue-in-cheek as the music.
When Ralph Vaughn Williams wrote The Lark Ascending, the composition was for violin and piano. The soaring violin line, depicting a lark in flight, went on to become one of the most quintessentially English compositions there was.
Then, in 1920, Vaughn Williams revised the piece, this time scoring it for an orchestra.
The outbreak of World War One delayed the premiere of the piece. The violinist who wrote the music, Vaughn Williams, didn't publicly perform it until 1921.
As the violin’s lark soars, the orchestra or piano works to paint a picture of rural English tranquillity.
Accounts vary about the inspiration for The Lark Ascending. Some attribute it to George Meredith’s poem, The Lark. But others say inspiration struck while the composer was on holiday at Margate. War had been declared, and Vaughn Williams was watching ships come in and out of Margate Harbour.
His response was a powerful piece of program music that sings of hope and patriotic loyalty.
Listen for the way Vaughn Williams continually dodges a final, closed cadence to instill that sense of optimism. And as you listen, pay attention to the violin. It doesn’t just soar. It uses pentatonic roulades – little five-note embellishments to the phrasing that create the sense of trilling and flight we associate with the lark.
There are many excellent examples of program music. But there is an equal number of musicians who influenced it. Here are some of the most famous.
Perhaps the best example of Charles Ives’ program music is his piece The Unanswered Question. But his career was wide-ranging and ran the gamut from church to popular music.
Ives took elements from these wildly different genres and integrated them with European techniques like:
- Tone clusters
Unconvinced music could support him, Ives graduated university and went not into professional composition but insurance policies. But he continued to compose, and other examples include:
- Central Park in the Dark
- The Celestial Railroad
- Three Places in New England
Despite Edward Elgar’s long struggle for notoriety in his lifetime, today he is one of the composers most associated with English music.
Among his compositions are a variety of programmatic pieces. Elgar's program music typically is inspired by specific places, poems, or as in the case of Sea Pictures, both.
Some of his most recognizable program music includes:
- Variations on a Theme (Enigma)
- Severne Suite
- Nursery Suite
Another significant contributor to the development of program music was Edvard Grieg. His program music is highly evocative of Nordic landscapes and fjords.
Grieg is best-known for his Peter Gynt Suite, originally composed to accompany Ibsen’s play of the same name. But today, you’re as likely to hear it on the radio as in theatres.
When people think of Schoenberg, three things immediately spring to mind:
- The 12-tone scale
Schoenberg didn’t just write program music. He broke all the boundaries of conventional music, and his originality incensed the public. But Schoenberg was undeterred. He channeled that unconventionality into a piece of program music that remains one of his best-loved pieces, Verklärte Nacht.
Lavish and romantic, the piece was inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel.
In addition to teaching Alban Berg, Schoenberg supported Liszt and Richard Strauss in their careers.
Strauss famously said that his program music was so specific, the listener could tell what color hair Don Juan’s many loves had by listening.
True or not, Strauss was musically brilliant. He was also crucial to the emergence of the tone poem, the medium most popular with composers writing program music. Strauss polished the style and structure of this emerging piece.
Some of his best-known program music includes:
- Don Juan
- Death and Transfiguration
- Don Quixote
Music has always been emotive, but during the Romantic Era, it was especially so. This preoccupation with the cult of sensibility led composers to start experimenting not only with how music could capture feelings and sensations, but how it could capitalize on those feelings to tell a story.
The result was program music.
To test the theory, composers began to integrate other mediums into their music. These ranged from poems to paintings and short stories.
Not everyone endorsed the movement. For instance, although Bruckner initially set programs for his music, he later scrubbed most of them, wanting his music to stand on its own.
Composers used various techniques to shape their musical stories, including:
- Orchestral instruments as characters
Today, we’ve lost the preoccupation with heightened emotion and sensibility. But program music continues. You’re most likely to hear it as the backdrop for films. Listen to the sweeping Wagnerian influences of Lord of the Rings’ soundtrack and see if you agree.
Program music is music with a story to tell. What story and where it comes from doesn’t matter. All the music needs to evoke a specific place, feeling, or narrative.
Today, we may not recognize program music as anything more than compelling music, but chances are you would still recognize Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade or Duke Ellington’s jazzier Harlem Air Shaft.
And if not, have a listen to your favorite movie soundtrack. As time moves on, these are as programmatic as Romantic Era composers ever were.
Want to learn about more music genres? Visit our list of 51 Music Genres. You’re sure to find more exciting genres of music to explore, learn more about the history, and discover some fantastic examples.