What Is Impressionism in Music?

Impressionism in music was a musical movement that flourished during the late 19th and early 20th centuries among several composers working in Western classical music (particularly during those periods) whose compositions concentrate on mood and atmosphere.

Impressionism is a style of music that is typically categorized as Impressionist art, impressionist painting, or Impressionist literature. It involves the attempt to depict scenes as observed from the artist’s subjective perspective, creating an idealized and imaginative impression instead of a literal representation.

This impressionist style of music is based on the impressionist art movement. The impressionist art movement was a late 19th-century French art movement characterized by loose, unblended brushwork and vibrant color that captured light and mood. Impressionist composers include Maurice Ravel, Alexander Scriabin, Erik Satie, and Claude Debussy.

Key Takeaways

  • Impressionism in music, paralleling the visual art movement, emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, influenced by the atmospheric and mood-focused works of Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir. Key figures include Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and others.
  • This musical style is marked by its emphasis on tone color, atmosphere, and fluid structure over traditional forms and melodic lines. Techniques such as complex chords, chromatic scales, and innovative orchestration are prevalent, with music often drawing from natural imagery and sensations.
  • Rather than conveying explicit narratives or themes, Impressionist music aims to capture fleeting moods and moments, much like the brushstrokes of Impressionist paintings. This results in compositions that prioritize harmonic exploration and textural variety.
  • While the peak of Impressionist music has passed, its influence persists in modern compositions, continuing to inspire musicians with its innovative approaches to harmony, rhythm, and instrumental color.

How Impressionism in Music started 

In the late 19th century impressionism in music started as a way for artists to break away from traditional impressionist painting. In an impressionistic painting, an artist tries to represent not what is visible, but how we perceive and feel about what we see.

Impressionism in music can be seen as a parallel to impressionism in art. It is a period from the impressionist music period of 1880-1920 and the impressionist music movement that arose as a parallel to impressionism in art.

The impressionist movement in music began shortly after impressionist painters revolutionized art around the world. Composers such as Debussy and Ravel were influenced by impressionist painters, especially Claude Monet and Pierre-August Renoir. 

They went on to compose impressionist pieces of music, which can be characterized by their use of extremely complex chords and intricate melodies that bring the listener’s attention to sound over melody or rhythm.

What Impressionism in Music sounds like 

When it comes to impressionistic music, the two main impressionist composers are Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. A famous example of impressionistic music is Debussy’s Clair de Lune, which starts with a slow melody over some quiet chords before launching into several soaring crescendos, which are difficult to play on the piano.

This impressionistic piece is meant to evoke images of moonlight through its use of sound, rather than evoking images through traditional melody and rhythm.

Also, impressionism in music can be found in many other pieces as well, such as Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, which is impressionistic in its use of complex chords, chromatic scales, and instrumentation.

Characteristics of Impressionist Music 

In impressionist music, composers shunned traditional classical techniques in favor of short musical phrases and fluid transitions from one section to another.

Color Themes

In impressionistic music, color themes take a central role in creating a mood or impression. Instrumental coloring is used to describe the setting, mood, and imagery.

Composers often use several different instruments in one piece to produce an impressionistic result. Impressionist composers rarely write for only one instrument.

Impressionistic music also makes extensive use of tone painting or imitating sounds outside the realm of music through musical instruments. Instruments are used to imitate bird calls, ocean waves, or other natural sounds.

A Symphony of Sounds

Impressionistic music is less concerned with the formal structure of a piece than impressionist painters are in creating their paintings.

For example, impressionist composers rarely use development sections and refrain sections as classical composers do, instead, they focus on shorter musical phrases, which helps impressionistic music flow seamlessly from one section to another.

Impressionistic music is also less concerned with creating a clear thematic statement than classical pieces are. A theme stated at the beginning of an impressionist piece will often be merely referenced rather than expressed throughout that piece.


Rather than focusing on lyrics with impressionistic music, impressionist composers tend to emphasize the instrumental aspects of music. However, impressionistic pieces may sometimes include impressionist lyrics or poetry written in the impressionist style. These lyrics are often inspired by natural imagery.

Impressionist Composers 

Claude Debussy

Claude Achille Debussy was the leading impressionist composer, best known for his use of pentatonic scales and his unorthodox chord progressions. He began with impressionistic pieces in the late 1880s that were characterized by slowly rolling arpeggios and chromaticism, before moving on to impressionistic impressionist music evoking scenes.

He was inspired by impressionist painters to use color to evoke feelings rather than traditional means of depicting things, such as a person or a landscape. 

Maurice Ravel 

Maurice Ravel’s impressionistic music is characterized by complex chord progressions, complex harmonies, and unique orchestration. He was inspired by impressionist painters who designed paintings to evoke images with the use of color rather than traditional means of depicting things, such as a person or a landscape.

Alexander Scriabin 

Alexander Scriabin used impressionist music to evoke mystic and religious feelings in the listener. His impressionistic music is characterized by complex chords, chromatic progressions, and chromatic scales. 

Luciano Berio 

Berio’s music is characterized by impressionistic pentatonic scales and surreal impressions. He used surreal techniques to manipulate sounds in an attempt to create impressionistic music.

Giacinto Scelsi 

Scelsi was known for using impressionism to create music that was uncanny, strange, and mysterious. His impressionistic music is characterized by mystic and impressionistic pentatonic scales.

Virgil Thomson 

Thomson’s impressionistic pieces were influenced by the American cultural scene, particularly jazz. He wrote several song cycles for orchestras that were heavily influenced by jazz, blues, and impressionist music.

John Cage 

Cage’s impressionistic pieces are marked by an early interest in surrealism and what he called the “white noises” of nature. His impressionistic music is characterized by impressionistic pentatonic scales.

Famous Impressionist Music Compositions   

  • Claude Debussy – Clair de Lune
  • Maurice Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé (Piano Suite for 2 pianos) 
  • Alexander Scriabin – 3 preludes, Etude in e-flat minor, Prelude and Nocturne
  • Giacinto Scelsi – Anahit
  • César Franck – Prélude, Chorale et Fugue for organ
  • Virgil Thomson – Symphony on a Hymn Tune 
  • John Cage – 4’33” (four minutes and thirty-three seconds of sheer silence)


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several composers working in Western classical music produced compositions that focused on emotion and atmosphere, known as Impressionism in music.

Impressionistic music is music that evokes an impression or feeling rather than depicting objects or things. Impressionistic music is characterized by impressionistic pentatonic scales, chord progressions, lyrics, and imagery designed to evoke a mood rather than traditional means of depicting things, such as a person or landscape.

Impressionism’s popularity began in France in the late 19th century and expanded throughout Western Europe before fading in the 20th century. The impressionistic style of music, which was inspired by impressionist art and impressionist poetry, is still used today, though not as frequently as impressionist artists are still painting.