What Is Programme Music? A Complete Guide

By Jade Bultitude
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In classical music, programme music refers to a piece of music that has an extra musical narrative. In other words, music that tells a story. This is in direct contrast to abstract or absolute music which is music written for its own sake.

All programme music is based on a specific narrative to evoke extra musical ideas or images. This is in direct contrast to absolute music which is music for musics sake without any extra musical narrative.

Programme music almost always refers to music from the European classical music tradition and we see the most examples of programme music from the romantic era and 19th century.

Characteristics of Programme music

All programme music comes from an outside source. Most usually, a text such as a poem, short story or novel. This text is what inspires the composer to write the music.

Programmatic music consists of purely instrumental works as this form relies on the music to tell the story rather than words. This is in contrast to something like opera where the story is told through the words.

There are many examples of programme music throughout western classical music but the most obvious examples are from the romantic era. The Tone poem from romantic era is an example of a form of programme music. However, we can see some examples of programme music from as far back as the renaissance era and program music continues to remain alive now for example in movies.

Renaissance period

Although music from the renaissance era was never specifically labelled as program music there are many examples of pieces that have programmatic elements.

A great example of renaissance program music is ‘The Fall of the Leafe’ by Martin Peerson. This piece was written about an autumnal tree shedding its leaves, which you can hear represented by descending scales.

The Fall of the Leafe Music Extract, programme music
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Another example from a renaissance composer is The Battell by William Byrd. This piece of music is inspired by a military battle from the Irish Wars.

Baroque Period

The music from the baroque era was also never specifically labelled as programme music. However, as with the renaissance period, there are many pieces of music with programmatic elements that music to show extra musical elements.

Couperin wrote a book of works for keyboard that each had a very descriptive title. Examples of these names were ‘Les Petits Moulins a Vents’ (the little windmill) and ‘Le Tic Toe Choc, ou les maillotins’ (representing a ticking clock)

Perhaps the most famous example of program music from the baroque era is Vivaldi’s four seasons. This is a set of four violin concerti where each piece is about a different season of the year, Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer.

We also have one rare example from J.S. Bach, a piece written for his brother when he left to play for an orchestra in Sweden. ‘capriccio on the departure of his beloved brother’.

Capriccio on the departure of his beloeved brother
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The Classical Period

The classical era was more of a time of order. During this time, composers began to write music that had a lot more structure and a larger focus on musical form. This meant that music which was trying to tell a story was not popular, with music written for music’s sake being the most prevalent.

Having said that, we do see a few programmatic examples in the music of Haydn. Although not explicitly written as program music, Haydn does use descriptive names for some of his symphonies.

In particular Symphony 8 has a movement called ‘la tempesta ‘which means a storm.

And his symphony 101 entitled ‘The Clock.’

It was only when Beethoven appeared that we started to see more programme elements coming in. Beethoven was the start of the romantic music tradition and during this transition into romantic music we began to see more program music.

A great example is Beethoven’s 6th pastoral symphony. This symphony paints a picture of an idyllic countryside scene, highlighting rural life. If you listen carefully you can even hear the imitation bird calls.

However, interestingly enough, Beethoven was known to have said ‘the whole work can be perceived without description, it is more an expression of feelings rather than a tone painting’, hinting at the fact that this wasn’t program music at all!

The Romantic Period

Program music took off in the 19th century, with composers beginning to compose music that took inspiration from literature, folk tales, art and nature. There are many examples from romantic era composers of program music.

Tchaikovsky has many examples of programme music and in particular, takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s plays. Some great examples would be:

  • Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
  • The Tempest Symphonic Fantasia

Tchaikovksy also wrote the 1812 overture. This was inspired by the Napoleonic wars and you can hear how the music achieved drama by using different themes for the French and Russian armies.

Strauss also wrote many examples of program music. Much of Strauss’s program music is written in a particular forms called tone poems (symphonic poems) and often are single movement orchestral pieces. Some amazing examples from Strauss include:

  • Don Juan
  • Tod und Verklärung
  • Eine Alpensinfonie

Smetana was also well know for writing tone poems (symphonic poem). One of the most famous examples of program music from Smetana is The Moldau. This symphonic work is a musical description of the river as it goes through waves, rapids and eventually to calm sea.

Camille Saint Saens was another romantic composer that loved to write program music The French composer wrote ‘Carnival of Animals’ which is a musical description of many different animals.

Berlioz, another French composer is also famous for writing works that involve programmatic elements. Symphonie fantastique, one of his most famous symphonic works, tells a semi autobiographical tale of an artist descending into an opium fueled delirium in the face of unrequited love. During a performance of this piece of program music, the audience were given detailed programme notes for this piece. The music uses an ideé fixe which is a recurring melodic theme to represent the main character. This theme is gradually altered as the character and his perspective change.

Sibelius, a Finnish composer, wrote program music based on folk stories from his native finland. One of the most famous examples of his purely orchestral program music is the piece ‘Finlandia’.

Modest Mussorgsky also writes many great examples of program music. Perhaps one of the most famous is ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. This piece was written to represent a series of paintings and the perspective of a viewer walking around looking at them.

The Twentieth Century

The use of programme music continued into the 20th century although there are also many examples of abstract music during this time as well! Some great examples of program music are:

Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Chromcomie’. This piece is based on bird song, although there is no specific musical narration within this piece.

Another great example is by Debussy, a French composer. All of Debussy’s works are more of less written in the program music style. A great example is ‘La mer’. This piece is written about the sea, although there is no specific musical narration for his piece it is a piece to represent the atmosphere.


Jazz is not a genre that you would thing about as using a lot of program music. Most jazz is in fact abstract music but there are a few exceptions.

Duke Ellington wrote descriptive tributes to people in his orchestra ‘portrait of Louis Armstrong’ is very self explanatory! ‘A tone parallel to Harlem’ is another piece he wrote which evokes the area of New York that Duke Ellington was based in.

Film, Television and Video Games

Perhaps a really obvious example of writing program music is within film music and their soundtracks, television music and also video game music. All of these different examples of program music help to advance the plot and evoke what is happening on the screen.

Some amazing examples of film music come from the composer John Williams. The film Star Wars is an excellent example. Throughout this piece you can hear the use of leitmotifs to represent different characters.

Nobuo Uematsu is a great example of a video game composer. He is most well known for the final fantasy video games and uses a similar technique of leitmotifs to represent different characters.

Is all music programme music?

Some people will argue that all music is program music to some extent as it can evoke feelings for the individual. However, program music will have a explicitly narrative content behind it that the composer is trying to represent and this is what differentiates it from music that is simply music.

What next…?

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Jade is a flute player and music educator with a passion for educating the next generation of musicians. She is a Masters Graduate from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Jade has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.