Musicians may express themselves using tempos, scales, and melodies, but their work is often defined in terms of purpose-driven, contextual classifications. Many of these designations, such as genres and technical identifiers, seem unimportant if all you care about is a nice beat. They’re still, however, worthy of closer attention, particularly when you’re trying to tell a story using modern media. If the dialogue, actors, and visuals are the centerpieces of your marketing tale or artistic production, then the music sets the stage.

Programmatic, or program, music refers to music that exists to tell a narrative. The term commonly refers to the background orchestration in stage dramas, such as plays. Most definitions, however, exclude singing that’s integral to production plots, such as the vocals in an opera or musical. In the Digital Era, it’s also taken on new dimensions as a critical element of commercial content.

Should you use programmatic music? Here’s how to make the right choice about adding oomph to your production — and deciding what kind of sound sets the perfect tone.

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This post has been updated in August 2021.

What Is Programmatic Music?

People have long studied music. Over the past few centuries, however, scholars began taking a more rigorous approach to classifying creativity. One of the ways they did this was by drawing clearer lines between different forms of music.

The idea of programmatic, or program, music goes beyond the typical concept of genre. Programmatic music is specifically designed to represent or portray external factors, and it can be any style.

Suppose you decided to shoot a sweeping cowboy Western-style epic. The soundtrack might include country music and classical pieces with each timed to play at specific parts of the film. Though these genres are clearly distinct, they’d both be examples of program music.

Now suppose that you wrote the same musical score just for the sake of creating a new sound. The resulting work would exemplify absolute music, or music that doesn’t refer to anything external. It would exist for its own intrinsic reasons, much like an album. Although someone might subsequently use or reinterpret your music to reinforce their art, your original intent was to create a standalone piece.

The Story of Programmatic Music

Programmatic music has been around for so long that most people take it for granted today. For instance, if you attended a play, you might find it odd if there was no background score – imagine Cats without the backing sounds to go with the singing.

Early Program Music

Although programmatic music is the standard today, it was less common in prior eras. During the Romanticist art era of the first half of the 19th Century, however, orchestras became more commonplace. Suddenly, it wasn’t a rarity to see a play that also included a full-on musical score.

Considering the fact that recorded sound and mass advertising wouldn’t hit the mainstream for almost a century, it made sense that many media-starved audiences fell in love with programmatic music. Interestingly, this era also coincided with the appearance of international music celebrities, such as virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt.


Transitioning to Film

As motion pictures ascended to the forefront of public media, program music was right there alongside them. For example, you might not have known that most “silent films” weren’t genuinely silent — and not just because old-timey projection technology was noisy. Even though there was no recorded audio, studios distributed their film reels with accompanying sheet music and performance notes. When local cinemas showed these flicks to audiences, many also hired professional musicians to play along. It seems way less awkward than sitting in a quiet theatre listening to your date chewing their popcorn, doesn’t it?

What Is Programmatic Music Like Today?

Programmatic music no longer exclusively involves chamber orchestras or classical arias. Now, you can pick any genre from jazz to rock as long as it suits your branding and content. Or you can avoid conventional styles entirely and stick to ambient tunes that suggest emotions through the use of airy tones and subtle harmonies. This freedom of choice doesn’t, however, mean that picking program music isn’t worth serious consideration. The audience might not be paying as much attention as they did in the days of live performances, but program music is just as integral to artistic media and vital to commercial content.

The first companies to air TV and radio commercials took their cues from plays and movies. They knew they faced a fierce battle for the public interest. Adding music likely seemed like an obvious choice — especially since people weren’t used to having their favorite programs interrupted by ads.

Modern marketers may find themselves similarly dependent on program music. Although almost all consumers take ad content in stride, the novelty has worn off. Sure, some audiences are willing to make exceptions for certain forms of influencer marketing, but few tolerate boring content. Without program music, it’s harder to break through barriers and get people enthused.

What Is Programmatic Music Used to Accomplish?

Good programmatic music overcomes resistance to marketing in a few crucial ways:

Boosting Interest

You feel pretty excited about your products or artistic work, and why shouldn’t you? After all, you spent months developing your output and seeing the dream to fruition.

The big problem is that all of that hard work is hidden behind the curtain. To consumers and audiences, your ad, voiceover, or creative product seems to come out of nowhere — demanding undivided attention, no less. Programmatic music can help your content seem less abrupt. By making it easier to get consumers immersed in the message, it increases your odds of keeping people engaged.

Laying the Foundations for the Message

Giving commercials, movies, and productions context is essential. Even though some ads don’t tell much of a story, they still need help to convince people to listen.

Program music lets you establish a mood in seconds. It’s crucial for situations where you have limited time to explain things or wow audiences, such as 30-second TV and radio ads.

Increasing Memorableness

What makes a movie memorable? It’s usually not just one thing — for instance, who hasn’t seen cinematic efforts that failed utterly despite including major stars or cool effects? Instead, great films captivate by treating viewers to a full experience.

Program music is a useful tool for helping your content stick in an audience’s memory. It reinforces the likelihood that people will associate strong emotions with what they see, and this gets the neurons firing a bit more vigorously. When combined with jingles, program music can also help you control the focus and spread massive brand awareness.


Evoking Existing Sentiment

Playing off of memes and other tidal waves of cultural interest is never a bad idea. Recognizable songs are easier to remember, but they also give you a leg up on the competition. Instead of having to build awareness from the ground up, you get to capitalize on how people feel about your chosen pop tune or exuberant background ballad.

Programmatic music derives inherent significance from whatever it’s describing. Although the question of whether such meaning comes from the piece or people’s preexisting mental associations define how they feel about certain music is a sort of chicken-and-egg mystery, you can benefit either way. For instance, including “Flight of the Bumblebee” in a commercial or play is an easy way to evoke a high-energy sentiment — even if your audiences never saw the opera for which it was originally composed.

Building Loyalty and Buy-in

Program music can tie different media productions together as a more cohesive whole. Here are some good examples of how this might work in various venues:

Companies often choose one or two types of music or specific pieces that routinely pop up in their branding. This is especially effective for independent, themed campaigns. While such sounds aren’t as up-front-and-center as end-of-commercial jingles, they supply critical cues that tell audiences what to expect. For instance, you might not be listening too closely to a commercial that plays during your morning commute until you recognize a familiar tune in the background that sucks you in. Relying on associative memory makes it easier to prompt audiences to draw connections.

  • Movie directors might use recurring programmatic music to reinforce specific, story-driven narratives. Think back to the iconic Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme). As the title implies, this little tune played almost every time Darth Vader entered a dramatic scene in the original movies. By consistently associating the musical motif with the character, George Lucas was able to create an iconic mental association that persists among fans decades later.
  • Creative directors and artists sometimes use incongruous music to appeal to broader audiences. Famously, Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton relied heavily on the hip hop genre to present U.S. history in a more palatable manner than most people might expect. Programmatic music can let you do the same thing — without needing to master the art of rhyme saying.

Is Programmatic Music the Right Choice for Your Brand Outreach or Production?

Programmatic music can do a lot for your content. Even if you haven’t found the ideal composer, you still need to consider how these sounds might impact the completed work. Although not every production needs a sweeping overture or complex scoring, even a little bit of tonal planning goes a long way. Whether you’re creating a radio ad or a cinema blockbuster, it’s crucial to engage all of the audience’s senses, so don’t forget the background music.

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