Theme and Variations

Theme and Variations

Theme and variations is a very common musical structure you will come across, especially in classical music. The structure is built upon a musical idea called the theme which is played at the start of the piece. The theme can be as short as 8 bars in length or can be much longer. It usually consists of a memorable melody with an accompaniment of some sorts.

Once the theme has been played the composer then repeats it, but varies it in some way. This is called Variation 1.
Once Variation 1 has been played, the composer repeats the theme again, this time varying it in a different way, thus producing Variation 2.
This process is repeated as many times as the composer chooses producing a musical structure called Theme and Variations. Each variation is different, but can still be traced back to the original theme in some way.

Theme and Variations Diagram

How are Variations Created?

There are a number of ways in which composers vary the theme. Here are the most common elements of music which are changed:

Melody – composers will change the original melody in a number of different ways. These include adding notes (addition), taking notes away (subtraction) and inverting the melody (if the melody went up in pitch in the theme it is played going down in pitch in the variation). Another common technique is to add ornamentation such as trills.

Rhythm – composers will change the rhythm of a melody when it is played again.

Harmony/Tonality – Key changes are a great way of varying a theme. A composer may play the theme in a major key and then reharmonise it in a minor key (the relative minor is a common choice) or vice versa.

Time Signature – a theme played in 4/4 and then changed to 3/4 will instantly lead to a variation.

Other elements to look out for which can be varied are dynamics, tempo, instrumentation and texture.

How to Compose Theme and Variations

Composing theme and variations is extremely rewarding as a composer as it will push you on to new levels. It will force you to get the most out of your ideas.
To get started, I suggest you find a short musical idea you have written which you are really pleased with – something that is “catchy” will help. Try recording it or writing out the score of it (whichever works best for you) – this is your theme.

Once you have done that try choosing one of the techniques listed above and use it to improvise a variation based on your theme. Varying the melody is a good place to start. Try improvising a different melody. Record or notate your idea and then compare it to your original theme. Your variation should sound different to the original theme, but should still be recognizable as being based upon the theme.

Try this a few times until you have produced a variation you are pleased with. When you have done this try varying the theme again, this time using a different technique such as rhythm.

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