Program music or programme music (British English) is music that attempts to depict in music an extra-musical scene or narrative. The narrative itself might be offered to the audience in the form of program notes inviting imaginative correlations with the music. A well-known example is Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, which relates a drug-induced series of morbid fantasies concerning the unrequited love of a sensitive poet involving murder, execution, and the torments of Hell. The genre culminates in the symphonic works of Richard Strauss that include narrations of the adventures of Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiegel, the composer’s domestic life, and an interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Superman. Following Strauss, the genre declined and new works with explicitly narrative content are rare. Nevertheless the genre continues to exert an influence on film music, especially where this draws upon the techniques of late romantic music.
The term is almost exclusively applied to works in the European classical music tradition, particularly those from the Romantic music period of the 19th century, during which the concept was popular, but programmatic pieces have long been a part of music. The term is usually reserved for purely instrumental works (pieces without singers and lyrics), and not used, for example for Opera or Lieder. Single movement orchestral pieces of program music are often called symphonic poems.
Absolute music, in contrast, is to be appreciated without any particular reference to anything outside the music itself.
Any instrumental genre could be composed in such a way as to tell a story or paint a picture in the mind’s eye of the listener. A program symphony is the result of a composer applying the principle of program music to the genre of the symphony. A program symphony, like any other work of that genre, would consist of multiple movements, usually four or five, and would likely follow to some extent the standard characteristics of symphonic construction. For example, the second movement would likely be slower than the first, and the third movement would be based on a dance. The fifth movement would serve as a kind of grand finale. Traditional forms would be of less concern to a composer of programmatic music, as the form of a movement would likely be influenced by the subject matter being depicted. Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique is one of the best-known examples of a program symphony.