YourClassical Children

What does THEME AND VARIATION mean?

Wolfgang Amadeus MozartWikimedia Commons

March 27, 2020

LISTEN — Audio Instructions

Target age range: Grades K-6 (with differentiation options within the lesson)

1. Composers sometimes like to take a familiar tune -- that is, a theme or melody -- and create variations, or different versions, of that melody.

2. Listen to a famous theme and variations piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

LISTEN — 12 Variations on Ah, vous dirai-je, maman, K. 265
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Francesco Nicolosi, piano

Everyone will probably recognize the very famous main theme!

For younger children or those who need a movement break, listen to the theme and each variation and use movement or a prop (scarf, ribbon, etc.) to move along with what you hear.

Theme map
 
Katie Condon/MPR

For older children or those who like art activities, follow along with the listening map below. Most of the variations are about a minute long. In the box underneath each variation, there is a description of some of the sound.

Theme map
 
Katie Condon/MPR

Would you add any words to these descriptions?

Draw your own grid and add music vocabulary, descriptive words or pictures and colors to represent each variation.

3. Create your own set of themes and variations. Select a short, simple and familiar melody, such as "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or "Happy Birthday."

Option 1: Sing it, and then try singing again, making a few changes. Here are a few ways you might try changing it.

• Hold some notes longer and some notes shorter, changing the rhythm
• Repeat a few words or phrases more often that you do when you sing the original theme
• Make your singing voice "extra smooth" or "extra bumpy"
• Change the volume, or dynamics, in new or unusual ways

Option 2: This option requires some music literacy/reading notated music.

• Print out or draw some staff paper.
• Notate the main melody.
• Then try to create a few "decorated" versions. Here are a few suggestions for ideas to get started:

---Pick a note, and add a few neighbor notes on either side of it.
---Turn all your quarter notes into half notes to create serious or solemn variations. If you make all your note values go twice as fast, your variation will probably have a lot of energy.
---Add a staccato symbol to every note to make it sound short and bumpy, or add a long slur to make all the notes sound smooth and connected.
---Think about how you could vary the dynamics to make a new variation.
---If you know how, try changing a major theme into a minor variation.

4. Here are a few more Themes and Variations for extra listening.

LISTEN — Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a
Johannes Brahms
Brussels Philharmonic; Ali Rahbari, conductor

LISTEN — Variations on America
Charles Ives (orch. W. Schuman)
Seattle Symphony; Gerard Schwarz, conductor

LISTEN — Variations on a Korean Folk Song
John Barnes Chance
United States Army Field Band; William E. Clark, conductor

Have a question or suggestion? Contact Katie Condon, music education specialist.

More: View all of our YourClassical Music Lessons