What Is Program Music and How to Use Programmatic Elements?

what is Program Music

Do you want to know what is program music? You’ve probably heard the term “program music” before, but what exactly is it? In short, program music is a type of instrumental music that tells a story or creates a visual image. It’s sometimes called “absolute music,” because it stands on its own without any sort of verbal or extra-musical accompaniment.

Program music can be based on anything the composer chooses—a poem, a painting, a historical event, etc.—and often contains elements that represent specific aspects of the chosen subject matter.

For example, if a composer were to write a piece of program music based on Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” they might use high-pitched notes to represent the stars and lower-pitched notes to represent the rolling hills.

Instrumentation in Program Music

Program music is typically written for orchestra, although it can also be written for solo instruments or small ensembles. One of the most famous examples of program music is Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

This piano piece was inspired by a series of paintings by Viktor Hartmann, and each section represents a different painting.

“The Great Gate of Kiev” is perhaps the best-known section of the piece, and it represents Hartmann’s monumental gate design (which was never actually constructed). The grandiose nature of the gate is reflected in the broad chords and sweeping melodies of this section.

In contrast, the section entitled “Tuileries” depicts children playing in a park, so it features much lighter, more delicate textures. This contrast between sections helps to create a vivid sonic image of the different paintings that inspired Mussorgsky’s composition.

Most Important Elements of Program Music

When writing program music, composers have to strike a balance between creating descriptive sonic images and telling a clear and cohesive story. The best pieces of program music are those that do both—after all, there’s no use in creating a beautiful soundscape if it doesn’t effectively communicate the intended subject matter.

To achieve this balance, composers need to carefully consider three important elements: form, tone color, and dynamics.


The form of program music often mirrors the structure of the story or poem that it’s based on. For example, if a composer were to write a piece based on Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” they might use the ternary form (ABA) to reflect the three key choices made in the poem. However, this isn’t always the case—some composers opt for more abstract forms that help to emphasize specific elements of their chosen subject matter.

Tone Color

The choice of instrument(s) is crucial in program music. After all, each instrument has its own unique timbre (tone color), which can be used to create different sonic effects. For example, woodwind instruments are often used to create open landscapes or outdoor scenes because they have light and airy timbres that conjure up images of open skies and gentle breezes.

Meanwhile, strings are frequently used to depict more intimate settings or moments because their richer timbres add warmth and depth to these types of scenes.


The element of dynamics (loudness/softness) is also important in program music. Composers often use crescendos (gradual increases in volume) and decrescendos (gradual decreases in volume) to depict changes in scenery or shifts in mood.

Sudden changes in dynamics can also be effective—for example, if a composer wanted to write something intended to shock or startle their listener, they might use an abrupt forte (loud) chord after several measures of piano (soft) playing.

Conclusion: What Is Program Music

We hope this article helped you better understand program music! If you’re interested in learning more about this type of composition, be sure to check out some of the examples mentioned above—they’re sure to give you a better sense of how programmatic elements can be used effectively in instrumental pieces.

Meanwhile, you can also check out Why isn’t Garth Brooks on Apple Music.

Frequently Ask Questions

What does program music mean?

Program music is a type of instrumental composition that is based on an extramusical (i.e. non-musical) subject. This subject can be anything from a poem or story to a painting or landscape. The composer writes the piece in such a way that the music itself helps to depict the chosen subject matter.

What is program music in the romantic era?

The Romantic era was a time when many composers wrote program music. This was largely due to the fact that, during this period, there was a renewed interest in nature and the imagination. As such, many composers sought to write music that would evoke specific images or emotions in their listeners.

What are some examples of program music?

There are many examples of program music, but some of the most famous pieces include “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky, “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky, and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas.

That’s all for the guide of what is program music. You can also check out How to Listen to Music on FaceTime and How to Repeat a Song on Apple Music.

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