"Program Music" is a genre of instrumental music that aims to depict or evoke specific extra-musical ideas, stories, scenes, or emotions. Unlike "absolute music", which is purely instrumental and does not have a specific narrative or program, program music is composed with the intention of conveying a programmatic concept or narrative through musical means.
Program music can take various forms, including symphonic poems, tone poems, overtures, and suites. Composers use various musical techniques such as melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, and orchestration to portray or suggest the intended programmatic elements. The programmatic content can be inspired by literature, poetry, mythology, nature, historical events, or personal experiences.
One of the notable examples of program music is Richard Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra", which is based on Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical work. The music follows a narrative structure and aims to depict the themes and ideas presented in Nietzsche's text. Another example is Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition", which portrays a series of paintings and artworks through musical depictions of different scenes.
Program music allows composers to express and communicate specific ideas, emotions, or stories through the medium of music. It invites the listener to engage their imagination and connect with the narrative or concept being portrayed. However, program music can also be enjoyed on its own purely for its musical qualities, even without knowledge of the specific program or narrative.
The genre of program music emerged during the Romantic era, with composers such as Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Richard Strauss embracing its possibilities. It continues to be explored and expanded upon by contemporary composers who seek to push the boundaries of musical expression and storytelling.