Something is afoot. Proof follows.
I was listening to Beethoven's Sixth, enjoying the florid prose of the liner notes and I see the words "program music". OK, so the Sixth is considered "program music" by some. To hell with liner notes. This is LVB, not Yanni.
Then I am watching the opening night of the New York Philharmonic's season last night on PBS and the great Beverley Sills asks Lorin Maazel, the program director, if Mahler's First Symphony is not program music? She could have asked him so many other things about the symphony, but that question about "program music" is her first question.
See what I mean about things being afoot? Anyway, an excellent performance of the great "Titan" by the NY Philharmonic and I read up on "program music".
Program music is called so because these are "Compositions with extra-musical content that directs the attention of the listener to a literary or pictoral association" (source: Virigina Tech's Music Dictionary.) It also means there is some kind of a story-line that provides a context for the music, or, the story-line connects the various movements, if it is a symphonic work.
Opera is program music. Most lyrical pop music is program music (unless it is an album by the Sigur Ros, in which case it is absolute music. These guys once released an album WITHOUT song titles.) Most modern (or "cool") jazz aimed at absolute music. Song titles and songs rarely had any connections. I remember listening to "Kind of Blue" for the first time. Till "So What" hit that blissed-out, nirvanic-manic moment when Coltrane enters (you will know it when you hear it), I wondered if "So What" was not a sly, ironic title. Then I knew better.
Program music tries to convey specific images. Absolute music conveys impressions of images. Like Van Gogh's skies or Monet's flowers, musical compositions can be freed from the oppression of formality and "literalness".
In classical music circles, programmatic or program music is considered somewhat inferior to "absolute" music. So, if you want to impress another snob, simply say "oh, it is program music" and wrinkle your nose just a little. Not too much, just a little, lest the Mahler Mafia strike down upon thee with great vengeance.