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What Is Absolute Music?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 23, 2024
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Absolute music is a type of abstract music that is not written with the intent to tell any type of story or paint any other kind of mental picture for the audience. Its composers generally intend for the structure of each piece to stand on its own without extra associations. The melodies and harmonies of absolute music are also not usually tied to any specific emotional reactions or interpretations, so the listeners are free to attribute their own feelings, thoughts, and mental images to each piece they hear. This type of music consists of instrumental scores without lyrics, though instrumental music pieces are not always absolute based on the specific composers' ideas.

One of the most frequently encountered intentions behind absolute music's creation is to distinguish it from instrumental program music, which has definite connections to specific stories, moods, or images. Some pieces of program music are instrumental scores of films, plays, or operas. Others are written to paint musical pictures of specific events, places, themes, or situations. Examples of program music are Ludwig van Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and Franz Liszt's Prometheus.

The ideas behind the origins of absolute music are closely related to those of abstract art. Both are not intended to represent anything concrete. Some seasoned listeners of this type of impressionist music often claim that it can be truly appreciated based on the technical arrangements of notes rather than any unnecessary related feelings or ideas. This view is generally linked to the formalist ideas about both art and music that first gained popularity in the nineteenth century. Formalism applied to music can be traced to the writings of a critic named Eduard Hanslick who described quality music as that which can be appreciated for its pure sound structure alone.

Since absolute music is not tied to any kind of story or visual frame of reference, it is often considered a better option for close musical analysis. Classical musicians often listen to recorded pieces of this genre to better understand the composers' techniques and to study possible methods of improving their own performances. Some casual listeners also prefer this kind of music because they often find the complex arrangements of harmonies and melodies to be mentally stimulating. Well-known pieces that are considered absolute music include Frédéric Chopin's Waltz in D flat, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Flutes, and Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 5 in B flat major.

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