What is Program Music?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

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.

Beethoven's Sixth Symphony The Pastoral is an example of program music.
Beethoven's Sixth Symphony The Pastoral is an example of program music.

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:

  • Ludwig von Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, The Pastoral, which tells of a visit to the country that is interrupted by a thunderstorm.

  • Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a work based on the tales of Scheherazade, the story teller celebrated in the Thousand and One Nights, with each of the four musical movements referencing a different one of Scheherazade's stories: Sinbad, the Kalendar Prince, The Young Prince and Princess, and a multi-part fourth movement that begins with a festival and ends with a shipwreck, all interwoven with themes for the Sultan and Schererazade.

  • Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite of ten piano pieces, set for orchestra by Joseph-Maurice Ravel, among others, based on a collection of pictures by Mussorgsky’s deceased friend, Viktor Hartmann, and conveyed as from the point of view of a person perambulating through an exhibition and stopping before each one to examine it.

  • Felix Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave) references a real cave on the island of Staffa in the Hebrides archipelago, which is near Scotland, and sets a scene rather than tells a story.

  • Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic poem "The Moldau"(Vltava), which evokes a journey down the Bohemian river from its source to its joining with the Elbe.

  • Richard Strauss’s tone poem, "Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks," which conveys the pranks and laughter of Till’s adventures until he is caught and sentenced to death but — to judge by the music — is resurrected to return to his jokes and teasing once again.

  • Paul Dukas’s symphonic poem "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ballad “Der Zauberlehrling” and reworked for the Disney movie Fantasia, in which Mickey Mouse plays the sorcerer’s apprentice.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


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.


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.


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?

Post your comments
Forgot password?