Tone Poem: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is a Tone Poem?
  • 1:09 How Does a Tone Poem Work?
  • 2:31 Franz Liszt Invents…
  • 3:36 Romantic Period to the…
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn about a genre of orchestral music called the tone poem. You'll learn how tone poems use music to tell stories, and you'll read about composers who have written tone poems since the genre's invention in the 19th century.

What Is a Tone Poem?

Can music tell a story without words? During the 19th-century artistic movement called Romanticism, composers set out to prove that it could. Romantic writers and painters loved to tell stories and express moods with their art, and musicians were eager to join the trend.

It's not hard to tell a musical story using text and singing; operas have been around and doing just that since 1600, after all. It's trickier to tell a story or suggest a mood using just instruments, but Romantic-period composers were up to the challenge. One story-telling musical genre invented during the Romantic period was the tone poem.

A tone poem is a piece of orchestral concert music designed to tell a story or suggest an extramusical idea. Musicians also use the term symphonic poem to mean the same thing. Tone poems are part of a larger category of concert music called program music, instrumental music accompanied by a written program describing the music's story, mood or idea.

How Does a Tone Poem Work?

A tone poem is nearly always written for orchestra. It's also written as one movement, that is, one free-standing chunk of music. Some tone poems have elaborate programs. Their composers provide entire printed narratives to guide the audience through the music's story. Other tone poems have a program of a single word, like the name of a character. This kind of tone poem leaves the storytelling up to the listeners' imaginations.

The tone poem brought a huge innovation to orchestral music. It was one of the first genres that allowed composers to create their own musical structures. Before the Romantic period, most orchestral genres came with strict forms. Whether a composer was writing a symphony, a concerto or other work, audiences expected the melodies and harmonies to appear in a standard order.

Think of pre-Romantic orchestral forms as musical football; the game only works if everyone knows and obeys the rules. In the Romantic period, the tone poem gave composers freedom to invent their own rules, or form, for each piece they wrote. Composers usually structured tone poems around the story they wanted to convey, rather than using a pre-existing musical form. In other words, instead of playing more football, each Romantic composer could invent a new sport.

Franz Liszt Invents the Tone Poem

In 1854, the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, who lived from 1811-1886, coined the term 'symphonic poem'. He used it to describe his orchestral piece Tasso, which was based on a poem by Romantic English poet Lord Byron. Though his first symphonic poem illustrated an actual poem, Liszt also wrote symphonic poems based on other sources, like a painting, a Greek myth and Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Liszt demonstrated the narrative possibilities of his new genre with his symphonic poem Les Préludes, written in 1854. Les Préludes was based on a poem of the same name by Alfonse-Marie de Lamartine. Liszt's Les Préludes travels through six different sections, mirroring the six successive moods in de Lamartine's poem. Liszt based each section of his music on the same three-note motif, but changed and expanded the melody with different instrumentations and harmonies to reflect the poem's changing moods.

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