Program Music

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Purpose of Music

As far as we can tell, music may be one of the oldest art forms in the world. While we’ll never be able to hear the songs and chants of prehistoric peoples (although that would be totally awesome) we have found flutes in the archeological record that date back to roughly 42,000 years ago. It’s assumed that music itself predates these rare and luckily preserved artifacts. So music is an ancient part of humanity, but what is its purpose? Why do you listen to music? Does music need to relate to other stories, ideas, or arts? Or does music simply exist for its own sake? That debate became very important to Europeans of the early 19th century, especially in Germany where it was embodied through composers like Ludwig van Beethoven. So what is the purpose of music? Let’s find out.

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Program Music

In the 19th century, composers began debating the purpose of music by categorizing their compositions into one of two groups. The first category is called program music. Program music is that which is about something. It has a theme, a subject, and a plot. In artistic terms, we may say that it is representational, which means that this kind of music is written in connection to something else, something extra-musical.

Perhaps it is written to help tell a story, as in the score for an opera or a movie. Perhaps it is based on an adventure in an old folk tale or the subject in a work of art. It could even be the soundtrack to a movie that helps advance the plot. Maybe it has lyrics to help convey its meaning, or maybe the composer has written a program to help explain the subject to the audience. That’s actually where the name ”program music” comes from; 19th-century composers wrote programs that explained what the music was about.

Program music is music that is based on a specific narrative and, as such, is intended to evoke extra-musical ideas or images in the mind of the listener, by musically depicting a scene, theme, events, or literary text. By contrast, absolute music stands for itself and is intended to be appreciated without any extra-musical narrative or connotations.

Program music refers almost exclusively to works in the European classical music tradition, particularly those from the Romantic period of the nineteenth century, when the concept was popular. The “tone poem” of the Romantic era is an example of a form of program music. However, pieces which fit the description have long been a part of music from the eighteenth century. The term is usually reserved for purely instrumental works, and not for opera or songs. In contemporary music, the tradition of program music remains very much alive, for example, in movie soundtracks, in which composers strive to evoke a specific emotional response from listeners in keeping with the program of the film.

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History of program music

Renaissance period

Composers of the Renaissance wrote a fair amount of program music, especially for the harpsichord, including works such as Martin Peerson’s The Fall of the Leafe and William Byrd’s The Battell. For the latter work, the composer provided the following written description of the sections, indicating their programmatic themes: “Souldiers sommons, marche of footemen, marche of horsmen, trumpetts, Irishe marche, bagpipe and the drone, flute and the droome, marche to the fighte, the battels be joyned, retreat, galliarde for the victorie.”

Baroque period

Probably the most famous work of the Baroque era is Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, a set of four concertos for violin and string orchestra that illustrates the seasons of the year with rain, buzzing flies, chilly winds, treading on ice, dancing peasants, and so on. The program of the work is made explicit in a sequence of four sonnets written by the composer.

Classical era

Program music was less often composed in the Classical era. At this time, perhaps more than any other, music achieved drama from its own internal resources, notably in works written in sonata form. It is thought, however, that a number of Joseph Haydn’s earlier symphonies may be program music. For example, the composer once said that one of his earlier symphonies represents “a dialogue between God and the Sinner.” The classical-era composer Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf wrote a series of symphonies based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses (not to be confused with twentieth-century composer Benjamin Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid).

Romantic period

Program music particularly flourished in the Romantic era. A significant reason for this was the influence of literature and folklore on composers in the nineteenth century. The symphonic poem (also known an tone poem), usually a single-movement orchestral form that develops a poetic idea, tells a story, suggests a scene or creates a mood, became the most prominent vehicle for program music in the Romantic era.

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Popular music as program music

The word “program music” is not normally used in speaking of popular music, but the tradition of purely orchestral program music is continued in pieces for jazz orchestra, most notably several pieces by Duke Ellington. Instrumental pieces in popular music often have a descriptive title which suggests that they could be categorized as program music, and several instrumental albums are completely devoted to some programmatic idea.

Some genres of popular music are more likely than others to involve programmatic elements. These include ambient, new age, surf rock, jazz fusion, progressive rock, art rock and various genres of techno music.

Is all music program music?

More traditional listeners often reject these views sharply, asserting that music can be meaningful, as well as deeply emotional, while being essentially about itself (notes, themes, keys, and so on), and without any connection to the political and societal conflicts of our own day.

Most classical music is absolute music, as is suggested by titles which often consist simply of the type of composition. While the debate is of interest to many, for practical purposes most scholars use the term “program music” in the narrower sense described above.

The importance of program music

The concept of program music was particularly attractive to composers who wanted to pair their music to a story, an idea, a scene or a poem. Such music had qualities to suggest or evoke an image, whether it was a mere imitation of natural sounds, i.e. bird calls, or using descriptive melodies, harmonies or rhythms to create a mood, emotion or atmosphere for a story, idea, scene or poetic connotation, i.e. the flowing of a river to the sea. It is the combination of various arts into one which inspires descriptive music from coloristic resources.

Program music clearly lives on today especially in movie soundtracks, which often feature ultra-modern sounding atonal programmatic music.

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