Programmatic versus absolute music

Last week, I was attending a webinar, where two composers discussed their music. On the chat appeared the question whether to program ‘ programmatic, comfortable story-telling music’, taking the listener by the hand or ‘absolute, sound and form-based’ music that forces the listener to discover the music by himself and educates him.

Story or FORM first?

I already tried composing ‘a story’ and ‘an absolute’. I found that adding a story to the absolute composition, helped less imaginative people having a better experience during the concert. There is a lot of positive feed-back on a story that helps people understand the music. People don’t recognize the composition as ‘absolute’, when you do that.

It does not make a difference whether I start with a story or add one later. Even adding a picture of a war-dog later on, makes people hear the dog. But the dog was added afterwards, to have more fun rehearsing and listening. The absolute music became more entertaining, there were more deep discussions afterwards because there was a shared topic.

Programmatic or absolute?

Since I am trying to develop sophisticated new Kitsch programmatic music, the difference between the two types of music interests me. My main question is:

Could we combine the two to achieve Sophisticated New Kitsch Music?

Usually people tend to think that absolute music is more modern and more educative than programmatic music. This can be true, when programmatic music is perceived as a literal ‘sound-scape’ that projects the story in music: “Mickey Mousing”. When Mickey falls, the music goes down. When the bird flies away, the music goes up. Programmatic music often is blamed to be only ‘entertaining’, for the common guy, not ‘educating’. Simple.

Absolute music is based on abstract architectural forms, that might also sound great. It’s thought to be a more original art, showing/teaching us something new and sophisticated. Elegant.

When music should teach at all, it should help us understand our shared human experiences. It should teach us what unites us.

The cental idea behind these qualifications is, that music develops into better, more sophisticated music chronologically over time. And since ‘absolute music’ developed after ‘programmatic music’, it is supposed to be more sophisticated.

Deconstructed Barbie-doll: all the familiar parts, no doll to play with. Photo by Skitterphoto on

Personally, I don’t understand modern classical music as a ‘natural development’, more as a deconstruction of known ways to construct beauty. And then, experimenting with the parts.

The essence of a Barbie-doll are the parts, but the parts don’t form a doll, per se. Isn’t this musical style more an expression of the European psychological depression after the World Wars, rather than an improvement of Art?

But, why set the two forms of music apart and make them compete?

I think that this discussion is distracting us from the only real question:

What makes music good, what makes REAL music?

What I like about the idea of programmatic music, is that I could use the story-telling techniques used to write drama. I want to know, whether a more dramatic form in music, makes us feel a deeper catharsis.

Music purely based on FORM can make us feel emotional too, music of Bach can do that. So the idea that only programmatic music can give us a deeply understood emotional experience, isn’t true. Patterns can sound just as beautiful as ‘Mickey Mousing’ in a non-obvious way.

The brain likes patterns, more abstract music can use this advantage. The motoric response of the muscles (dancing, clapping, tapping feet) helps us remember the more repetitive rhythmic patterns, which absolute music might provide better.

AND it is easier for the brain to remember these patterns when there is an emotional component to the experience: when the listener likes the music, it sets positive hormones free and we remember the music with this emotion. Also a strong feeling of catharsis, a feeling of relieve after hearing the music will help us hold a good memory of the experience.

Absolute music could be seen in the light of the elegance of math, providing its own beauty to the music. Adding a programmatic element to absolute music might provide the more sophisticated dramatic music, “New Kitsch”, that I am looking for.

To test this idea, I am currently working on a composition that uses an abstract 34-Matrix FORM that structures time, silences and key-changes in mathematical blocks. A simple song provides 3 strains of DNA, that intertwine here in there in the composition: preparing the listener for the song.

The dramatic energy-curve (the black line) is laid over this FORM: the planning of the climax (at 2/3), the ups- and downs, are dominated by the energy-curve, not the 34-matrix. Thus, the orchestration and dynamics follows from the energy-curve, making a more dramatic composition possible, keeping the beauty of the structured, abstract FORM.

The difficulty with this set-up, is that the keys suggest a dominance of a particular instrument-group and this instrument group might be too loud or too soft for the energy-curve at that point in time. The test is, whether I can still orchestrate in a satisfying way, setting up all the way towards the climax, keeping the FORM. The goal is to create a huge space at the climax, so a meaningful silence will exist afterwards, where the song starts.

I think that combining absolute and programmatic music in one composition, will provide a more sophisticated composition. I don’t think we should choose between them, but combine their forces into something new and exciting.

I think it is not the question of whether the one or the other is good music, whether we need to ‘educate’ the audience or ‘entertain’. Why can’t it be all of that at once? I think we should only think about what makes music good, what makes REAL music?

When a story is composed without emotions, it’s just the chronological stream of sounds of a battle.

When absolute music is composed without emotions, it’s just a pattern of notes.

Both compositions aren’t REAL music. Because, despite of all the hours the composer put in, there is no personal reflection of emotions, the struggle of life, what we all share as human beings. This music is SOUND. It could be enjoyable sound, it can pay the bills.

But will it last, telling a universal truth?

People want an anchor to connect to the patterns of the music, be able to play the memory game, to carry the music with them and pass it on. And they want to connect with the emotions that a life-story brings.

To feel emotionally connected to the music. To experience the story of life, through music, to feel understood, can only be done when the composer is in an honest struggle to write that.

Humans are not only brains, they also listen with their hearts. A story helps listeners and players, connecting to the emotions of the music, as well as the mathematical patterns.

And I think that combining absolute and programmatic music into one composition will provide the brain and the heart combined: the human, the best experience.

By Anneloes Wolters


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