Program Music

Feb 12, 2018

Credit SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

“Program music” is instrumental music that attempts to tell a story, paint a scene or picture, or convey impressions of a character, place, or event. But no matter how sonically descriptive, music is always open to a range of interpretations—sometimes far removed from the composer’s intentions—and no two people will ever hear the same work in exactly the same way. I’ll go further: in most cases, without descriptive titles we wouldn’t have the first foggiest clue of what an instrumental piece was supposed to be “about.” And what does “about” even mean, when it comes to music?


It’s almost always a term to be avoided—and not just for program music. I hear sadness? You hear quiet resolution. You hear the rain on the mountaintops? I hear a three-year old splashing in the mud. I have no right to impose my “about” on you, nor should you try to impose yours on me. Even, by the way, if you’re a radio announcer.

This has been A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.