Program music

Students will explore the programmatic works of composers, through aural, performance and composition activities.

Students will then develop critical thinking, creativity and communication skills by creating their own composition, based on an Australian artwork, using a music software program.


  • 5.1 performs repertoire with increasing levels of complexity in a range of musical styles demonstrating an understanding of the musical concepts.
  • 5.4 demonstrates an understanding of the musical concepts through improvising, arranging and composing in the styles or genre of music selected for study.
  • 5.6 uses different forms of technology in the composition process.
  • 5.7 demonstrates an understanding of musical concepts through the analysis, comparison and critical discussion of music from different stylistic, social, cultural and historical contexts.
  • 5.8 demonstrates an understanding of musical concepts through aural identification, discrimination, memorisation and notation in the music selected for study.
  • 5.9 demonstrates an understanding of musical literacy through the appropriate application of notation, terminology and the interpretation and analysis of scores used in the music selected for study.


15 lessons.


Instrumental music that communicates a story, poem, object or scene without words.


The 19th century witnessed the height of program music. This is instrumental music that depicts a poem, story, object (for example, an artwork or an animal) or scene, without words. The music can evoke feelings, aurally describe the sound or movement of nature or it can reflect characters or events in a story. Significant composers of this style include Camille Saint-Saëns, Hector Berlioz, Modest Mussorgsky and Edvard Grieg.

Programmatic music is also present in the 21st Century. An example is The Course of Empire (2008), a string quartet by Nell Shaw Cohen, inspired by the 19th Century paintings of Thomas Cole.

  • Numeracy
  • Literacy
  • Difference and diversity
  • Information and communications technology.


All activities require students to demonstrate their learning and are all assessment for learning activities.

Teaching and learning activities

In groups of 45, students will:

  • select one occupation per group, from the list below:
    • cleaner
    • magician
    • assembly line worker
    • construction worker
    • secretary
    • criminal
    • firefighter
    • sportsperson
    • racing car driver.
  • have 30 minutes to create and practise a 20 to 30 second compositions using only instrumental music (no words - or actions) describing/depicting their occupation
  • present their piece to the class to see if other groups can guess their occupation.

The composition in this exercise does not need to be notated, rather, students can keep brief annotations of their ideas and structure.

In groups of 45, students will:

  • choose one scenario per group from the scenarios resource
  • compose and practise an instrumental piece of music (no longer than one minute in length) that best describes their scenario
  • perform their compositions to the class for other groups to see if they can guess the scenario.

The composition does not need to be notated, rather, students can keep brief annotations of their ideas and structure.

Students will:

  • listen (no visuals) to the piece In the hall of the mountain king by Edvard Grieg (02:33) and discuss what 'story' they think the music is telling
  • research and respond to the following questions:
    • What is a suite?
    • What is Peer Gynt based on?
    • What is a movement (in music)?
    • What is the story behind this particular movement?
    • Which instruments play the theme first? How are they played (what expressive technique do they use)?
    • When the opening theme is played, what instrument begins the ostinato in the accompanying part?
    • What happens the second time the theme is played?
    • What is a crescendo and how it is achieved in this piece?
    • What does accelerando mean and when does it begin to happen in the music?
    • What instruments are added toward the end of the piece?
  • complete a music map of the piece that identifies the sections present. This should include:
    • the themes played
    • who plays them
    • the changes in dynamic levels and tempo
    • an attempt at notating rhythms.
  • compare and discuss the teacher's music map in the hall of the mountain king teacher (PDF 4.35MB)
  • watch the Line Rider - Mountain King (02:46) video and write a paragraph discussing the use and effectiveness of the animation.

Students will:

  • go to the Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals YouTube channel and watch each movement individually
  • select their 3 favourite movements and discuss how the composer has used the concepts of music to depict the movement or sound of the animal/s.

Responses must include correct music terminology and notation of individual instrument rhythms where possible.

Students will:

Zig, zig, zig, Death in a cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking,
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack?
But hist! of a sudden they quit the round,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.

Retrieved from The Kennedy Center website, date accessed 23/02/18.

Students will:

  • read the text from Vivaldi's Winter concerto on the Winter handout (PDF 4.27 MB) and complete the exercises below:
    • form groups of 3-4 and select one paragraph to use for the next few steps
    • discuss and write down ideas about the type of performing media, tone colour, dynamics and expressive techniques that could be used to aurally communicate the text - without lyrics
    • compose and practise their piece (no longer than one minute in length)

Please note - the composition does not need to be notated, rather, students can keep brief annotations of their ideas and structure.

  • perform it for the class for peer discussion and feedback. Some points to consider:
    • How did the group decide on their performing media? (Did students only play the instruments they know or did they experiment with other instruments to achieve the tone colour they were seeking?)
    • Were unusual expressive techniques used in performance? How did these reflect the text?
    • Were dynamics used? How? Were they effective and well-considered?
  • listen to Vivaldi's musical interpretation of his text (09:29)
  • discuss expressive techniques and tone colours by following along with the break down on the Winter handout.
  • create a glossary. Add and define the following techniques:
    • sul ponticello playing very close to the bridge
    • sul tasto bowing over the end of the fingerboard
    • trills rapid alternation of two pitches next to each other
    • tremolo rapid repetition of one note (unmeasured)
    • pizzicato plucking the strings.

Students will:

Display the artwork below (or provide copies), as students listen to Mov't II The Pastoral State. The music can be found on Beyond the Note: The Course of Empire

Image: The course of empire The Arcadian or Pastoral State 1836 by Thomas Cole, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons CC0.

This copy of the image sourced from Wikipedia commons 17 Feb 2020.

As students listen, they will:

  • write brief notes on how the concepts of music are used to reflect the scene in the painting. Responses may include (but are not restricted to).
    • calm, gentle, lilting 6/8 time signature
    • Adagio tempo (based on dotted crotchet beat. Due to Adagio falling between the terms Lento and Andante, the latter would be acceptable.)
    • legato
    • lush harmonies (notes are close together in pitch and are consonant - pleasing to the ear
    • major tonality
    • a warm tone colour in the melody and by the sustained (at times a drone) bass note in the cello part in most sections
    • a smooth, stepwise contour in the melody, with some ornamentation
    • melody is often passed around between instruments (although the second section features viola and the fourth section features violin)
    • range of melody is within an octave
    • use of subtle crescendos and diminuendos
    • no harsh tone colours although contrast is achieved through use of pizzicato in the second section and col legno (with the wood of the bow) in the fourth section.

    In groups of 45, students will:

  • select an artwork from the artworks resource
  • discuss and respond to the following questions as a group, summarise their information and present it to the class, accompanied by their artwork
    • What might you name this painting?
    • In one paragraph, summarise what you think this painting is about. Can you make up a story about it? Is it based on a feeling or emotion? If so, what? You can be as detailed as you like.
    • What instruments would you use to express or communicate the story or emotions of this artwork? (No lyrics can be used)
    • What expressive techniques might be used? Explain.
    • Discuss how pitch will be used.
    • What tempo would you use? Would it stay the same all the way through the piece or would it change? How would it change (gradually/suddenly)? When would you have it change?
    • What dynamics would you use? Would they stay the same all the way through the piece or would they change? If they change, how (suddenly or gradually; adding instruments or taking them away; changing tone colours) and when? Explain.
    • Describe the texture of your piece? Would it have many layers of sound playing different things, or a single layer of sound or would it vary? How? When? Explain.
    • Any additional thoughts or comments?

This task involves students:

  • selecting one artwork upon which to base their composition. Artworks are to be Australian images. Suggested works can be found in the Australian artworks for assessment resource (PDF 13.5 MB)
  • demonstrating critical thinking by creating a mind map of their artwork and the concepts of music, to assist, clarify and plan their composition process
  • demonstrating creativity by using a music software program, such as Soundtrap (a free program available on all devices) to compose a short instrumental piece that communicates their artwork.

Prior to receiving the assessment task, the teacher should model the process.

  1. The teacher will demonstrate the construction of a mind map based on a chosen image.
  • The centre circle will have the name of the artwork.
  • Branching off from this will be approximately five bubbles that contain major ideas to be musically represented in the composition. Some examples of ideas include
    • topic
    • object
    • theme
    • place/time
    • mood
  • Branching off from each major idea bubble, should be ideas based on the concepts of music. Points for consideration:
    • tone colour - what instruments will be used? Will they use expressive techniques (e.g. pizzicato)? What are some adjectives to describe the kind of sound sought?
    • duration - will mainly long/short notes be used? What type of tempo? Will there be an ostinato? Will repetition be used?
    • pitch - high/low notes? What instrument/s will play the melody? What instrument/s will play the harmony? Major or minor tonality?
    • dynamics - louds or softs (ensure that Italian terms or abbreviations are used)
    • texture - what types of layers; thick, think?

A sample colour coded mind map (PDF 4.66MB), based on the image. The Pointy End by Harry Pidgeon (as featured in the sample artworks for the group art activity) has been completed for you Students should demonstrate critical thinking and planning in their process by submitting their mind map as part of the assessment. It is not essential that every idea be used, however, students should be encouraged to base their composition on their mind map.

  1. A step by step guide for Soundtrap - step by step (PDF 5.44 MB) has been created to help any students who wish to use this program. The teacher can go through these steps and demonstrate how the software works. Alternative music software programs can be sourced via a google search. Some are free and some need to be purchased and/or are free for a trial period.
  2. Distribute the assessment task and images to students, allowing class time for completion. A Program music assessment task (PDF 4.27 MB) sheet and marking criteria has also been provided.
  • Metalanguage associated with the concepts of music - particularly expressive techniques
  • Interpreting poetry
  • Analysing, justifying and presenting ideas to the class
  • Creating mind maps
  • Structuring music into sections to analyse
  • Understanding and interpreting time signatures and rhythms
  • Notating rhythms.



Students could:

  • compose and perform a short programmatic piece based on a children's picture book
  • research the meaning of a motif. They are then to observe the information and audio excerpts on Beyond the Notes: The Course of Empire and describe how the composer Nell Shaw Cohen has used a motif in her composition.

Life skills


  • LS 3 a student vocalises, sings or plays an instrument as part of a group.
  • LS 5 a student experiments in organising musical sounds.
  • LS 7 a student experiences music from a variety of social, cultural and historical contexts.

Students could:

  • participate in group compositions and performance activities
  • perform as part of a group in an informal setting
  • organise musical sounds using technology
  • select a piece of music or song to accompany different Australian artworks.


Formative feedback - teacher observation of student participation in and contribution to group tasks.

Summative feedback - assessment task.


Please note:

Syllabus outcomes and content descriptors from Music 7–10 Syllabus (2003) © NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales, 2017.


  • Music 7-10
  • Stage 5
  • Unit

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