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:
- 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.