C6 | The romantic miniature

What is the romantic miniature in music?

  • The musical miniature is a short descriptive piece, part of a series or a longer set of works, usually describing an object or event.
  • The term has also been associated with Chopin’s nocturnes or his preludes since they too express or describe a certain mood or atmosphere.
  • The two main types of works that were descriptive and new to the listener in the Romantic era were i) the above, a short descriptive piece and ii) the type of work on a large canvas, such as the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz or Liszt’s symphonic poems for orchestra.
  • The main thing that these descriptive works have in common is that they are based on something beyond music itself, therefore bearing the label programme music. The other genre is called absolute music, such as the symphony, string quartet, sonata or concerto.
  • They often depict or reflect folk traditions and tales, social gatherings and nature.
  • They reflect their title through their musical elements such as rhythm, tempo, articulation, dynamics and tonality.

Tempo and rhythm

Rhythm can be crucial when trying to depict a mood or an object. It would not be advisable to use slow and long notes to describe a lively creature or someone running. The choice of time signature, e.g. 3/4, 4/4, 6/8 is important too.

Look at the rhythms in the following excerpts. Try to play them:

  • Tchaikovsky: Arabian Dance (from the ballet The Nutcracker)
  • Grieg: Wedding Day
  • Schubert: Am Meer (By the Sea)

Look once again at the rhythm of these three examples. How does each rhythm reflect the title? Look again at the tempo mark too.

Exercise 1

Now look at the tonality and pitch of the same three examples.

  1. Arabian Dance

    The melody here is within a narrow range and it focuses on the flattened 2nd of the scale – (E), that creates a semitone interval with the D each time. This is a typical feature from Eastern European music. This is the link:

  2. Wedding Day
  3. The tonality is festive and sunny natured, being in a major key. More importantly, the rhythm implies a ceremony or a march with the triplet anacrusis and the dotted rhythm in b.2. Notice too the vigour present in the music and also the slower tempo towards the middle section. How do the dynamics and the texture reflect all of these moods or features?

  4. Am Meer
  5. The rhythm is slow moving but the pitch is low and chromatic, suggesting something more than just a scene from nature and the sea itself. There is a heaviness and a melancholy mood to the music.

    In order to create a musical miniature for the piano, it’s an idea to look it’s a good idea to look at all kinds of music to notice how the composer brings the objects depicted to life. It may be easier with an orchestra because of the many colours or timbres present that are an integral part of the piece.

    Exercise 2

    Go back, looking at your rhythms. Now add pitch to your rhythms and then chords. Try to bring to mind the difference between chromatic and diatonic tonality.

During the Romantic period, a new type of work or genre became popular with chamber music fans. This was a short, descriptive composition, often for piano. The word miniature is used for this type of work, taken from the art world due to the works’ art-like qualities.

Spot the difference

Ask the question:

Does the music describe anything in particular? If it does, then it’s programme music (the term was coined by the composer Liszt). If it doesn’t, then the term absolute music is used.


Try and sort the following pieces into two categories, absolute music and programme music.

Exercise 1

Exercise 2