Music Program Music
Jonathan Kregor, Rebecca Schreiber
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0303


Studies of program music explore ways in which extra-musical material is expressed and interpreted through music. Conceptions of program music are broadly construed and vary throughout history in correlation with various aesthetic and philosophical perspectives—narrowly defined, programmatic compositions include an extra-musical program describing the musical expression, while a broader definition considers evocative titles, allusive musical material, and conventional musical significations as vehicles of extra-musical meaning. The question of aesthetic value arises in the debate surrounding the ability of music to communicate extra-musical ideas and the quality of music that claims to do so. This question is extensively explored through the polemics of the 19th-century “War of the Romantics,” pitting programmatic music against “absolute music.” Musical and theoretical writings of figures such as Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, and Hanslick provide rich source material informing many studies on program music. The distinction between program music and absolute music is blurred through various approaches to deriving meaning from both types of music. Theories of narrativity propose methods of interpreting formal structures, tonal progressions, and thematic devices interacting in ways reminiscent of literary narrative. Semiotic approaches explore meanings that arise from conventional significations of genre, style, and “topics,” evoking cultural understandings of social position, setting, and affect. Applying interpretive strategies such as these to programmatic music allows for hermeneutic readings mapping the extra-musical program onto the musical events to explore meaningful points of intersection or contradiction. Further studies draw connections to composer biography and sociohistorical context, positioning the music in philosophical perspectives and reception. Broader cultural and political situations inform readings of underlying implications such as nationalism or social commentary. Current studies of program music explore musical narratives in nuanced contexts that parse the historical and cultural atmospheres surrounding composers, their music, and reception to propose new readings and frames of interpretation.

Surveys and Overviews

Program music is multifaceted in its definitions, mediums, genres, source material, and reception. The different facets have been explored through various approaches over the years. Early texts including Niecks 1907 and Klauwell 1910 remain prominent comprehensive overviews of programmatic music broadly construed. Orrey 1975 later presents a survey focused more on purely instrumental music with extra-musical programs supported by the composer, narrowing the scope of the exploration of program music through that lens. A recent monograph on the topic, Kregor 2015 engages with several of program music’s multiple facets, providing a largely chronological survey of music and extra-musical programs supplemented by in-depth discussion of aesthetic, philosophical, compositional, and conceptual trends surrounding program music in the long 19th century. The essays compiled in Kregor 2018 also explore many different facets, bringing the contributors’ essays into dialogue with each other in various topical frames. Floros 1982 and Petersen 1983 offer supplements to these general surveys by identifying important and often overlooked programmatic subsets.

  • Floros, Constantin. Verschwiegene Programmusik. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaft, 1982.

    Considers the intriguing issue of “silent” or “hidden” programs in selected instrumental music. In reviewing Carl Maria von Weber’s Piano Concerto in F minor, symphonies by Robert Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Mahler, and pieces by Webern and Berg, Floros concludes, “a program offers first and foremost a creative impulse for the composer” (p. 218). Nevertheless, Floros advocates for a semantic decoding of this music to ascertain its full programmatic meaning.

  • Klauwell, Otto. Geschichte der Programmusik von ihren Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1910.

    Chronologically arranged and regionally focused, Klauwell identifies program music’s origins in the “tone symbolism” and “tone painting” of 15th- and 16th-century Franco-Flemish, English, and Italian composers. Primary focus on 19th-century Germany, culminating in Richard Strauss, with a wide-ranging final chapter that surveys recent program music in Europe, Russia, and America. Reprinted Wiesbaden, Germany, 1968.

  • Kregor, Jonathan. Program Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139506397

    Monograph offering a survey and discussion of the conceptual and compositional history of program music through the long 19th century. Its organization is largely chronological, examining influential ideas of aesthetic and philosophical criticism, genre, and case studies of composers, compositions, and extra-musical source material.

  • Kregor, Jonathan, ed. Nineteenth-Century Programme Music: Creation, Negotiations, Reception. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2018.

    The essays in this collection present various perspectives on program music, exploring dimensions of the conceptions of absolute and program music, narrative in music, compositional strategies and extra-musical influences on composition, symphonic poems and other programmatic genres, and reception of program music. Includes essays in English, Italian, German, and French examining the music of Beethoven, Joachim, Mussorgsky, Liszt, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Noskowski, Schoenberg, Smyth, MacDowell, Pasculli, and Janáček, among others.

  • Niecks, Frederick. Programme Music in the Last Four Centuries: A Contribution to the History of Musical Expression. London: Novello, 1907.

    Traces the chronological development of program music, providing biographical and anecdotal information on composers and their music. Organizes the chronology as “Early Attempts,” “Achievements in Small Forms and Serious Strivings in Larger Forms,” “Fulfilments,” “Other Fulfilments,” and “Contemporaries and Successors of the Programmatic Protagonists of the Last Two Periods (1830-1900).” Reprinted New York: Haskell House, 1969.

  • Orrey, Leslie. Programme Music: A Brief Survey from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day. London: Davis Poynter, 1975.

    Building upon the structure of Klauwell 1910, Orrey’s survey organizes programmatic music chronologically by the classical age, Romanticism, and the previous hundred years, with further categorizations by genre, medium, and nation. Descriptions are somewhat cursory and tend to focus on the composers and extra-musical programs.

  • Petersen, Peter, ed. Programmusik: Studien zu Begriff und Geschichte einer umstrittenen Gattung. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 1983.

    A heterogeneous collection on European program music across three centuries. Standout essays include Dorothea Schröder on Johann Kuhnau’s “Biblical” Sonatas, Andras Batta on Béla Bartók’s program music, Hans Kohlhase on Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1, and Aloyse Michaely on Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus. The other essays—on Liszt, Strauss, and Sibelius—have been superseded by more recent scholarship.

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