Definition and background:
During the 19th century, when composers were attempting to write music of a " programmatic " nature, the question arose as to whether instrumental music could adequately represent ideas, scenes, dramatic events, and so on as well as the voice could. These so-called representative compositions, then, became called " character pieces " in that they were attempting to represent the "character" of something extra- musical. In fact, programmatic music of the early 19th century was then also known as character music. However, as the piano became the instrument of choice for short, descriptive compositions, the term character piece came to refer to piano compositions almost exclusively while compositions for larger ensembles, such as the orchestra, band, and other ensembles which containing extra- musical content, became known simply as program pieces. instrumental piece composed to express a very definite feeling
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Wikipedia - Glossary of Musical Terminology
Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary
ORB -- Medieval Music Glossary