What is Programmatic Music?

Programmatic music is an instrumental type of music that evokes certain emotions and triggers the listener’s imagination in the process. It gives the listener something to think about and triggers imaginative thoughts that are related to the music. The melody itself tells a story to the listener.

Music like this has always existed, with early music always being instrumental, it’s hard not to call it descriptive or programmatic. However, this style of music became popular during the 19th century “Romantic Period”, with orchestral music being at the forefront. This is when the first correlations between art and music really came about.

One of the earliest examples of programmatic music is the “Pictures at an Exhibition” suite by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. This work was inspired by a series of paintings by his friend Viktor Hartmann, and Mussorgsky used specific musical devices to suggest different images from the paintings. For example, the “Bydlo” movement features lumbering oxen, intended to depict a slow-moving wagon.

Key Takeaways

  • Programmatic music is an instrumental genre that tells a story and evokes emotions, gaining prominence in the 19th-century Romantic Period. It has historical roots with examples like Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”.
  • The music encompasses orchestral scores, film scores, solo or small group performances, and electronic music, each serving to enhance narrative and mood in various media settings, from classical compositions to modern films and video games.
  • Programmatic music offers immersive experiences, fosters a deeper connection between the narrative and the audience, aids in story comprehension through musical cues, and amplifies emotional responses.
  • The genre continues to shape soundtracks and media experiences, extending its reach to modern platforms and genres, and demonstrating a lasting impact on storytelling through music.

Types of Programmatic Music

1. Orchestral Score: One of the most common types of programmatic music is an orchestral score, which can be used to re-create a specific story or mood using instruments rather than words. This type of music is often found in films and video games because it is simple and easy to understand.

The most common example of programmatic music in orchestral scores would be the leitmotif, which is a specific musical theme intended to represent different characters or places within a story. For example, when Gollum was first introduced in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”, there was a distinct theme created just for him which indicated that he was an important character.

2. Film Scores: Another type of programmatic music is film scores, which are often used to enhance the action or mood of a scene without being solely responsible for driving the plot forward. Usually, instead of playing background music under every scene like in some orchestral scores, film scores will only play during certain key moments to help emphasize the emotional impact of those scenes.

An example of this can be found in the movie “The Dark Knight”. During the fight scenes, there is an intense score playing in the background that helps create a sense of excitement and danger for the audience.

3. Music on Podiums: The third type of programmatic music is music played by a single musician or small group of musicians on a podium, also known as an organistrum, regals, or Symphonia. This style of music was most common during medieval times and can still be found in churches today.

One of the most famous examples of programmatic music on podiums is the “Greensleeves” melody, which has been used in many different films and television shows over the years.

4. Electronic Music: The fourth and final type of programmatic music is electronic music, which often relies on synthesizers and computer-generated sounds instead of real instruments. This type of music is most commonly found in music videos, commercials, and other short forms of media which are not usually associated with traditional storytelling methods.

An example of this would be the song “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz. While it was frequently used as background music in many different scenes during the music video, the sounds created by the synthesizers are what help create a sense of excitement and mystery for the audience.

The four types of programmatic music described above are often used together to enhance both film scenes and video games. By using specific instruments or sounds in these media, directors can tell stories with music rather than words. Although this can be a difficult task, when done correctly it can create an incredibly immersive experience for the audience.

Benefits of Programmatic Music 

1. Immersion: One of the primary benefits of programmatic music is its ability to create an immersive experience for the listener. By using specific sounds and instruments to represent different characters or events, listeners can often imagine the story or scene playing out in their minds. This type of music can be an extremely powerful tool in films, video games, and other media.

Programmatic music is often used to help create a specific mood or feeling rather than telling the story directly, which creates the sense that the audience is somehow becoming part of what they are experiencing.

2. Connecting with the Audience: One of the most important aspects of programmatic music is its ability to create a connection between the audience and the story or event being represented. This can be done through the use of leitmotifs, which are references to specific characters, places, or events within the music.

3. Increased Comprehension: A programmatic score can help viewers understand the story by easily associating characters, locations, or events with specific sounds or instruments. For example, somebody who has never seen “The Lord of the Rings” before might not immediately recognize the music. However, if they are familiar with the leitmotifs used in the movie, they will be able to associate the music with the characters and understand their role in the story.

4. Enhancing Emotions: In many cases, programmatic music is used specifically to evoke certain emotions in the audience. For example, a sad melody is often incorporated in drama movies, just to enhance a scene where something tragic or sad has happened. The same is done with building anticipation in a scene, when something is about to happen, the music builds up to give the audience a sense of excitement and anticipation.

What are other examples of programmatic music?

One of the most famous examples of programmatic music is the opera “Parsifal” by German composer Richard Wagner. Wagner used leitmotifs to represent different characters and events in the story, and many of the songs are written specifically to evoke a certain emotion in the listener.

A fast-rising programmatic music genre today is Post-Rock. The music is strictly instrumental and is created for the sole purpose of telling a story without words, only melodies. Artists who have excelled in this field are bands like “Explosions In The Sky”, “God Is An Astronaut”, “Mono”, and many more.

More recently, movie soundtracks have started to use programmatic music more and more. “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the “Harry Potter” series are both good examples of this, as is Hans Zimmer’s music in “The Dark Knight Trilogy”.

In video games, one of the most famous examples is the soundtrack for “Final Fantasy VII.” The composer, Nobuo Uematsu, often uses leitmotifs to represent different characters and locations in the game. One other example would be in “World Of Warcraft”, where each location has its own music and theme.

While programmatic music is often used in movies and video games, it can also be found in other forms of media. For example, the opening scene of the TV show “Game of Thrones” features a song with lyrics that are written specifically to introduce the viewer to the world of Westeros. The song is a perfect example of programmatic music because it introduces the viewer to key characters and locations while also evoking an emotional response.

Programmatic music is music that is written specifically to represent a story or event. Unlike traditional classical music, which is often written without any specific connection to a story, programmatic music uses specific sounds and instruments to represent different characters or events. This type of music has become increasingly popular in recent years because it allows for a greater level of immersion and connection with the audience.


Overall, programmatic music is a very effective way of immersing the audience in a story or event. By using specific sounds and instruments to represent different characters or locations, the composer can create a much stronger connection between the music and the audience.

Some of the benefits of programmatic music include enhanced comprehension, increased emotion, and a connection with the audience. This type of music has become increasingly popular in recent years, and it is likely to continue to be used in movies and other forms of media.