Program music is instrumental music that attempts to convey a scene, feeling, or story to the listener. The "program" or theme of a piece can be simply indicated by its title, or it can be a complex story or poem provided in a separate text. In music theory, it is considered the opposite of "absolute music," music which is its own inspiration and has no outside implications. Many different kinds of compositions can be "programmatic," including cantatas, operas, madrigals, overtures, and symphonies.

Hungarian composer Franz Liszt first coined the term in the 19th century. He described it as much more than simple imitation of natural sounds; the musical form is driven by the program. Many of his works, especially his "symphonic poems" follow this style. However, he did not invent the musical theory. It dates back at least to the 15th century, and even includes well-know pieces like Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

The 19th century saw program music's real rise in popularity. Many Romantic period composers worked to connect their music to other arts such as literature and painting, though none of them wrote only program music. Brahms wrote almost none, for example, but other composers such as Beethoven, Berlioz, Schumann, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Richard Strauss, Paul Dukas, and many others wrote pieces which were program music to some extent. Some, like Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (the Pastoral), seek to evoke feelings in the listener rather than paint a picture, while others, like Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, tell a detailed story. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture describes concrete events, celebrating the Tsar's victory over Napoleon through its mixing of the themes from the French and Russian national anthems. Conversely, Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra grapples with the deeper philosophical ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Though the debate raged through the 19th century as to the value of program music versus absolute music, the real question is not whether the music was inspired by some outside theme or event, or served as its own inspiration. Instead, it is whether the music moves the audience. A program can give added value to both composer and listener, but a work cannot be a masterpiece based on that program. The musical merits of the piece alone can determine if it is destined for greatness or to be lost with the passage of time.

Hoffman, Miles. "Excerpts from The NPR® Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z." Chicago Symphony Orchestra website. <>. November 26, 2002.
Moore, T. M.. "Program Music and the Life of Faith." Breakpoint Online. <>. November 26, 2002.

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