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What Is Theme And Variation In Music?

Themes and variations are words that we are familiar with and are reasonably self-explanatory. But what is theme and variation in music?

It is a musical structure that you may well come across all the time. Sometimes without actually realizing what is going on. It is especially common in Classical music. Has it always been there, or was it an addition to how composers wrote?


An Old Idea

Although it feels like it should be the work of a composer like Mozart, the first example can be shown in the 14th century. It may have been an isolated example because it began to be more popular in the early 1500s.

During the Renaissance period, this idea developed by starting with simple variations on a theme and then developing more complex ones.

Famous works based on the Principle of Theme and Variation

Famous works based on the Principle of Theme and Variation

In 1819 Beethoven was asked to create variations on a themed waltz by Diabelli. He created a staggering 33 variations. And then, of course, there was Brahm’s 1863 masterpiece “Variations on a Theme of Paganini.”

Following that, Rachmaninoff contributed his efforts in 1934 with his “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” for piano and orchestra. But what exactly are they doing, and how do they create these variations?.

Theme and Variations

As I mentioned, it is a common structure, especially in Classical music. The principle idea of themes and variations in music is that there is a main theme or an idea. This is played at or near the start of the piece.

It hasn’t necessarily got to be lengthy and can be as short as eight bars. But it has to have a particularly important aspect. It needs a melody or principle idea that is memorable. This is what will carry the rest of the piece and the variations applied to it. But of course, music wouldn’t be music if it didn’t have its rules, and themes and variations are no exception.

Structure and Organisation

Having a set structure allows the piece to be organized properly within itself. But it also allows some analysis. The organization is important to the composer as well.

They might take the first and primary sections and call it Section A1. If they move away from that idea and melody to something else, then they might call that Section B. But every time they return to the main theme, they are returning to Section A1.

But then they may add a variation to section A1 when they return to it. They would then label that as A2. The same principle would apply to every variation in Section A. Each section is created and given its own recognition, A1, A2, A3, A4, and so on.

A Formal Structure

This gives the piece a formality despite its variations. You might find a piece that has its A theme, then has its variations, and then returns to the exact opening theme. This would be described as A1, A2, A3, A1. Each variation is different. But each variation still has reference to the original theme.

Variations You Can Make

Variations You Can Make

There are several ways to create musical variations. Some are more subtle than others, but they all follow the basic idea. When trying to answer the question, “What is theme and Variation in music?” you should know how the subtleties involved.

Melodic Variations

You might have your memorable melody going on with its harmonies, all set to its rhythmic pattern. Whilst leaving the harmonies and the rhythm untouched, you can alter the principle melody very slightly.

The melody, of course, still has to have sympathy with its existing harmony lines. It also has to have its notes placed in a similar place to the original theme to have maximum impact. With this type of variation, it allows the composer to become more creative with their original theme melody.

What else can the composer do with Melodic Variations?

They can add notes or take notes away. This is especially effective later in the piece. The listener may have become familiar with the principle theme. The piece reverts to what they think is the original theme (theme A), but then notes are missing or added.

Making inversions to the melody is also a common practice. Where the melody rises in pitch instead, it goes down and vice versa. The timing, of course, staying the same.

Harmonic Variations

This variation keeps the principle melody line the same but changes the harmony pattern. In doing so, the principal melody can appear to become a different melody when in fact, it stays the same.

Alternating and varying the harmony lines is a great way to create variations without moving too far from the original theme.

Rhythmic Variations

When using these variations, the composer will have to be careful. When the piece has a standard rhythm to it, changes are going to affect most aspects of the piece. If syncopation occurs, which is almost certain, then it has to be managed within the concept of the piece.

Other variations

One idea for variation is to change the principal theme or melody from a major key and move it to its parallel minor key. The alteration in the melody could be quite drastic, but it will certainly create a great effect. This idea can also work in the other direction, from changing a minor piece to its major key.

Developing your theme

This is a great way to create a piece of music that has structure. That structure will be a pleasant experience for the listener but also a creative opportunity for the composer. Of course, the theme has to be melodic and memorable.

Where Did This Idea Come From?

Where Did This Idea Come From

No one really knows. Some think it came about because musicians got bored playing the same sections over and over again. They would have to do this as background music for dancers in the Royal Courts of the time.

Possibly it was Mozart himself that drove the idea on. He was known to play his or Salieri’s pieces and get bored. He relieved his mundane view of what he was playing by embellishing the themes, adding some variations, and then returning to them. I wouldn’t put it past the genius.

Learn more about themes and variations

He certainly embraced the idea before many others, and his Symphony Number 40 is a great example of all we have talked about. The first movement of his great “Great G Minor Symphony,” written in 1738, moves with its variations. Whilst always returning to its principle theme, even after dramatic key changes.

You can hear it in Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 40 & 41. Some other good examples of Themes and Variations in music are Somewhere in Time: Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Variation 18, and Life and Works of Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn.

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What Is Theme And Variation In Music – Final Thoughts

In many ways, it is one of the easiest and most productive ways of composing music. Each section uses the same theme. So it is just a case of playing with that theme to create counter-melodies and counter-harmonies. Music can be fascinating to work with, and themes and variations are right at the top of the list.

Until next time, let your music play.

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About Corey Hoffman

Corey is a multi-instrumentalist who has played in numerous bands over the years, some good, some not so good. He has also written countless songs and recorded five albums in professional studios across America. Today he is a hobby musician but still loves the guitar after over 15 years of playing.

He considers his writing as a way to share what he has learned over the decades with younger generations ad always can't wait to get his hands on the latest gear.

He lives just outside New York with his wife Barbara and their two German Shepherds, Ziggy and Iggy.

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