What Is Impressionism in Music? - Definition, Characteristics & Timeline

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: William Billings: Biography & Music

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:00 Definition
  • 0:28 Timeline
  • 0:48 Characteristics
  • 2:23 Composers
  • 2:50 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nancy Barlar
In this lesson, you will learn about Impressionism in music, focusing on the definition, timeline, and characteristics of this style of music along with the most prominent Impressionist composers.


When you look at a Monet from a distance, such as Water Lillies, you get the impression of a picture. However, if you were to study the work up close, it appears to be blotches of color rather than a coherent form. This style is Impressionism in art, and it is a similar idea as to what occurs in Impressionism in music.

Monet ~

Monet 'Water Lillies'

Impressionism in music is a 'musical style that stresses tone color, atmosphere, and fluidity' (Kamien 2015)


At the start of the twentieth century, there were several new styles of music developing. Impressionism is one of these styles, and this movement took place between 1890-1920. Impressionism in music was heavily influenced by both Impressionist art and French symbolist poetry, which were prominent in this same time frame.


As per the definition, the primary characteristics of Impressionism are those of tone color, atmosphere, and fluidity.

Tone color is the 'quality of sound that distinguishes one instrument or voice from another', and it is a critical component of Impressionism. In previous style periods, composers wrote so that groups of various instruments would sound alike. The Impressionist composers were focused more on the individual sounds of each instrument, and they wrote in such a way as to highlight those particular tone colors. Highlighting each instrument also lead to a thin texture as few instruments were playing at any one time.

Impressionist music departed from the traditional harmonies and key structures of previous style periods as well. Chords were used more for the distinct sound they had instead of their role within a key, and this led to more chords being dissonant: 'unstable and tense'. Traditional western scales were abandoned.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account