Some songs, such as Rodeo by Aaron Copland and Symphony No. 1 by Daniel Bukvich can evoke strong images in listener's ears. Rodeo has listeners imagining a wild west setting while Symphony No. 1 evokes a terrifying battle. This may require listeners to have a specific cultural background or some knowledge of the song's history before listening, but once listener's know this background, they can imagine what is happening. Although other music may evoke imagery, the composers of these two songs were very intentional and specific in what imagery they want listeners to imagine. When played at a concert, the audience is often told beforehand about the story.

Is there any term, perhaps a music genre, or word that musicologists or scholars of music use, or word from other similar creative fields that can be applied to music, to refer specifically to such music that is intentionally composed in a way that creates intended imagery for listeners?

Sample sentence: Rodeo and Symphony No. 1 are both examples of ___ music.

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    programme music noun [mass noun] music that is intended to evoke images or convey the impression of events. Compare with absolute music. - OED
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 12:19
  • ... and of course Peter and the Wulf is another example Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 13:26
  • 6
    Years ago, I played a track of Debussy's 'The Girl with the Flaxen hair' for an inner city class of 11yr olds to draw something, anything. They weren't told the title. Nearly all drew a blonde girl. Impressionist at its best!
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 13:43
  • There are two good answers here, depending on the asker's desired meaning. If you're looking for a word that means a type of music INTENDED to convey strong imagery, programmatic music (as opposed to absolute music) is the better term. On the other hand, if you want a word that means music which conveys strong imagery effectively, then evocative is the right choice.
    – barbecue
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 2:19

7 Answers 7


Music that is intended to evoke a picture in the listener's mind is termed program(me) music. Rodeo is certainly this. I'm not familiar with the symphony you mention, so I don't know whether the composer intended it to suggest a battle. The typical symphony is absolute music (written for its own sake), but some symphonies have a programme, e.g. R. Strauss's Alpine Symphony.

  • 1
    The OED seems to favor "mme" - who knew?!
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 12:20
  • 6
    @Fattie Why wouldn't it? Oxford is in England. Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 12:21
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    From Daniel Bukvich's website: "There is a program underlying Symphony No. 1. It is meant to depict the fierce Allied bombing attacks on Dresden, Germany, on February 13–14, 1945, which, according to most recent estimates, killed between 25,000 and 30,000 people. The four movements, “Prologue”, “Seeds in the Wind”, “Ave Maria”, and “Firestorm”, are derived from The Destruction of Dresden, an historic account of the bombings written by David Irving." Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 12:39
  • Isn't programme music more about evoking a sequence of images — and perhaps even a narrative linking them?
    – gidds
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 9:10

Funnily enough… evocative.


adj. Bringing strong images, memories, or feelings to mind.


making you remember or imagine something pleasant: evocative music
a sound evocative of the sea


making people remember something by producing a feeling or memory in them

evocative of a picture that is wonderfully evocative of a hot, summer’s day evocative music

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    This is just a general adjective. The question couldn't be clearer: Is there any term, perhaps a music genre, or word that musicologists or scholars of music use
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 12:21
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    @Fattie The answer couldn't be clearer, and this is it. This is literally the word that was asked for. It's even got the same stem. This is the word that musical scholars use. And I'm a musician. So, y'know... Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 12:22
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    @Fattie: By semantical definition, something that evokes [something] is evocative. The listed definition in the answer fits OP's question to a tee; and OP did not specify that the word must come from the music industry ("perhaps" does not entail a requirement).
    – Flater
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 22:45
  • "Evocative" is a descriptive term. Whether a certain piece of music is evocative is a matter of opinion. But the OP asked for a term for a type of music. That is, an objective label for a category or genre of music.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 8:21

Music that is intentionally composed in a way that creates intended imagery for listeners could be called picturesque.


Definition of picturesque

  1. a: resembling a picture : suggesting a painted scene

    b: charming or quaint in appearance

  2. : evoking mental images : VIVID


As in:

Rodeo has listeners visualizing a wild west setting.


  1. transitive. To form a mental vision, image, or picture of (something not visible or present to the sight, or of an abstraction); to make visible to the mind or imagination.

I would call it expressive:

2 : serving to express, utter, or represent
// foul and novel terms expressive of rage
— H. G. Wells
3 : effectively conveying meaning or feeling
// an expressive silence
// expressive line drawings

Of course, expressive can be used to describe more than just music. Pictures and visual memories are often associated with feelings. And pictures are representations of actual things.



Rodeo is a ballet.

The ballet makes use of riding movements that Agnes de Mille devised with the assistance of Peggy van Praagh, for a recital in London by Peggy van Praagh and Hugh Laing in 1938. De Mille also made use of such vernacular forms as a square dance and a cadenza for a tap dancer.

From Rodeo (ballet)

"Rodeo and Symphony No. 1 are both examples of ballet / balletic music."

(Edit: adding some information about ballet as a musical genre.)

I have just listened to Bukvich, and the term ballet may be strained in the context of the bombing of Dresden. However, Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps is quite strident and is also by definition a ballet.

One commenter has had some trouble because the term ballet evokes visual imagery of sugarplums, tutus, grand jetés (i.e., ballerinas, costumes, physical movements). While the term ballet does encompass choreographed movements, it is also a musical genre in its own right.

Ballet as a music form progressed from simply a complement to dance, to a concrete compositional form that often had as much value as the dance that went along with it.

From Ballet (music).

One would fall into an epistemological trap if one called Rodeo a ballet when one saw dancers dancing, but symphonic if one saw only cellists bowing. The musical genre is ballet, whether or not you see a pas de deux.

(end edit)

Tone poem

Not a single word, but a tone poem (like Holst's The Planets) is a contrasting genre from absolute music (like Bach's Prelude No. 1 in C).

The tone poem, or symphonic poem, is a work that wholeheartedly acknowledges that need. It has a title that suggests a storyline, or at least a mood-sequence, with perhaps a helpful literary or pictorial parallel: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Liszt’s Tasso: Lament and Triumph and Rachmaninov’s own Isle of the Dead are classic examples.

from What is a... Tone Poem?

Rodeo and Symphony No. 1 are both examples of tone poems.

  • I think that Prof Bukvich may have strained the definition of symphony. Although there are four movements in the Bukvich Symphony No. 1, they are very short, they are played without pause, they are for woodwinds and voices, and they do not follow the a symphonic sequence of allegro/adagio/scherzo/rondo. As for musical genre, this piece is much closer to the tone poem than to the symphony. There are also many parallels with The Planets (a paragon for tone poem). There is a soothing, romantic feel to "Ave Maria" and "Venus"; strident voices rising in "Fire storm" and "Neptune".
    – rajah9
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 12:56
  • Ballet is a dance form involving music plus choreography, not a standalone musical form. De Mille was the choreographer for Rodeo, thus the "riding movements" referenced in your quote are not musical movements but physical movements performed by human bodies. Symphony No. 1 is absolutely not a ballet as it was written with no accompanying choreography. The question strongly implies (by referring to 'listeners' repeatedly) that the music is being experienced as audio only, without any accompanying visual phenomena such as a dance troupe. Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 22:30
  • @Timbo, I respectfully disagree. Tchaikovsky (Nutcracker) and Copeland (Rodeo) wrote ballet music, which is a musical genre in its on right. The musical genre is called ballet. If you insist on the "visual phenomena," then what do you call Rodeo when you're streaming it? I also disagree in your assumption that the ballet genre must have accompanying choreography. The Nutcracker was ballet music before a choreographer put pen to paper and before the first ballerina donned a slipper.
    – rajah9
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 11:54
  • It is fair to say that music written specifically for ballet is called ballet music, though things start to get fuzzy in the 20th century as forms split into classical, modern, and jazz. "Ballet music" definitely evokes classical forms. The Nutcracker was choreographed before it was scored: "Petipa gave Tchaikovsky extremely detailed instructions for the composition of each number, down to the tempo and number of bars." If I were streaming the score to The Nutcracker I would call it a romantic classical symphony. What to call the score to Rodeo is the whole point of this question. Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 17:39

If the classical touch is not of importance, I would say Ambient music

Ambient music is a genre of music that emphasizes tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm. The genre is said to evoke an "atmospheric", "visual", or "unobtrusive" quality.

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