The Early Development of The Waltz

The waltz evolved from a German folk dance called “Landler” and became popular from the 1790s onwards.
It mainly originated in Austria, mostly in the ballrooms of the capital, Vienna – this is where the name Viennese Waltz comes from.
It became one of the most popular dances of the nineteenth century.

However, the waltz was rather controversial at the time as the dancing couple held each other to dance.

Waltz Music Theory Featured Image

“At The Ball” Frederick Vezin (1859-1933)

Johann Strauss (and his father, also called Johann Strauss!!) were the most famous composers of waltzes.
Viennese waltzes were played by big orchestras, typical of the Romantic period.

Musical Characteristics of the waltz

The waltz has some very clear musical “fingerprints” which make it fairly easy to identify:

  1. Time signature in triple metre (3 beats in a bar), usually 3/4 time.
    Triple metre waltz time signature
  2. Clear and memorable tune. Chromatic notes and other decoration are often used to add interest.
  3. Chordal accompaniment (usually primary chords) played in a homophonic texture.
  4. “Oom cha cha” accompaniment
    The “Oom cha cha” is one of my favourite sounding technical music theory terms!!
    It consists of 1 chord per bar with the bass note played on the first beat and the remaining notes of chords played on the 2nd and 3rd beats:

    Oom Cha Cha Waltz Accompaniment
    Waltz oom cha cha accompaniment sheet music
  5. Usually quite fast in tempo
  6. Slow changes between chords – a chord usually lasts for at least a bar. Technically, we say that the harmonic rhythm is slow.
  7. Binary Form – early waltzes were typically written in Binary Form.

Later Developments of The Waltz Style
Inevitably the Viennese waltz became more complex as composers developed the style. These increased complexities included:

  1. Long Introductions – often slow in tempo with tremolo strings, arpeggios and little snippets of the tunes to come later.
  2. 5 or more tunes in one piece – all in related keys, lasting for between 16 and 32 bars and in binary or ternary form.
  3. Coda – Closing section that ended the piece and included bits from the previous tunes.

Famous Waltzes

Have a look/listen to the following famous examples of the waltz.

Johann Strauss – The Blue Danube Waltz

Performed by Andre Rieu and his Orchestra

The Blue Danube is one of the most famous waltzes ever written.

Frederic Chopin – Minute Waltz
Chopin wrote a number of waltzes, the most famous of which is the Minute Waltz.
Have a listen to this early recording of a performance from 1931.

Chopin portraitChopin Minute Waltz
Waltz in D-flat major, Op. 64, No. 1 (The Minute Waltz)
Performed by Sigrid Schneevoigt in 1931

Other Notable Waltz Composers and Examples include:

  • Brahms
  • 2nd movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique
  • Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony 3rd movement (Tchaikovsky also included waltzes in his operas and ballets. E.g. Swan Lake)
Contemporary Waltzes

Composers have continued to use the waltz in contemporary compositions.
In the 20th century the waltz was included in musicals e.g. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music
Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance” is in 3/4 rhythm and is considered by many critics to be the first “sophisticated” treatment of the waltz.

Composers have also explored new ways in which the style can be used.
For example, in the film “Gladiator”, Hans Zimmer uses the characteristic 3/4 timing to score a dramatic and intense battle scene – a far cry from the ballrooms of Vienna!!

How To Compose A Waltz

Waltzes are great fun to compose as they have such clear musical “fingerprints” to guide you.
As long as you ensure that you have 3 beats in a bar, write a clear melody with a simple chord progression and use the “Oom cha cha” accompaniment then you will be well on your way!

My suggestion would be to try the following:

  1. Start by choosing a simple chord progression (just use chords I, IV and V – the primary chords).
  2. Play the chord progression using the the “Oom cha cha” accompaniment.
  3. Remember to have 3 beats in the bar!

  4. Now improvise a melody over the top of the chords. Try to just compose 8 bars to start with.

Once you have done this, you could try writing another 8 bars, but this time in a different key (maybe the relative minor).

I used these techniques outlined above to compose a waltz called “A Time To Dance” (from my album “A Time For Everything”).
Have a listen to it – can you hear the clear melody and simple chord progressions? Can you also hear how it changes key to the relative minor?

Ben Dunnett A Time For Everything CD cover for music theory siteA Time To Dance by Ben Dunnett

I hope that this example and the information above inspires and helps you in your learning.