Absolute Music vs. Program Music

Music is an important part of all human societies, but what is its actual purpose? In this lesson, we’ll explore the two main kinds of music and see how each one is defined by its purpose.

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.

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.

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Absolute Music

On the opposite end of the spectrum is absolute music. While program music has a subject, absolute music is about absolutely nothing. It is non-representational, or abstract. Absolute music does not represent a story, an idea, or anything outside of the music itself. This is music for music’s sake, composed purely for the sake of expression and to explore truths about how music makes you feel. For a long time in European history, people assumed that music needed to have some sort of subject for it to have value, but 19th-century composers like Beethoven started rejecting this idea. They argued that music was among the highest forms of art because it could be appreciated purely for its own sake. It did not need to be connected to anything else.


The distinction between absolute and program music is one of the most basic divisions in music. Music either has a subject, or it is music for music’s sake. So how do you know which one you’re listening to? Ideally, you know because you’re familiar with the composer, you’re listening to live symphonic music within a formal setting, and the conductor will tell you. However, that’s not generally how we listen to music. We hear music on the radio, out of context, in commercials or television shows, and everywhere else. So how do you know if a piece of music is absolute or programmatic?

Sometimes you simply won’t know. You can still look for clues, though. One indicator is the presence of lyrics. Lyrics tell a story and present a subject, so we know that they are part of program music. Notice that we said lyrics, not voice. Absolute music can use the human voice as an instrument without creating lyrics or using a subject.

Another clue you can look for is the title. If a song is titled something like ”Summer Evening,” ”The Ballad of Romeo and Juliet,” or even ”Main Character’s Theme,” then you know it’s program music. It is related to something extra-musical. It is representative. On the other hand, have you ever wondered why some music has a generic title? ‘Symphony in D minor,” ”Concerto in E,” or ”Quartet for Strings” are all titles appropriate for absolute music. There’s no title because the music does not have a subject. It is music for its own sake, and that’s it.

We should mention that few composers work exclusively in one kind of music or the other. Most are trained, or at least familiar, with both kinds of music. Sometimes program music is more appropriate, while other times the composer simply wants to explore how music makes people feel without any greater subject. It all depends on what your purpose is for composing.

Lesson Summary

Music can be categorized in many different ways, but one of the simplest is its purpose. Program music is music with a subject. It is representational. Program music contains an extra-musical subject, be it a story, a painting, or a landscape. The other category is absolute music, or music for music’s sake. It is non-representational, purely abstract, and without any reference to subjects outside of the music itself. Knowing the composer’s intent, the original context, or even the title of a composition can indicate whether you’re listening to program or absolute music. One indicator that you’re listening to program music is the presence of lyrics, which tell a story and present a subject. So what purpose does music have? It all depends on you, the listener.


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