Absolute Music vs. Program Music

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  • 0:04 Purpose of Music
  • 0:55 Program Music
  • 1:49 Absolute Music
  • 2:36 Differences
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

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.

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.

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