Theme and Variations: Understanding Musical Style

This activity took place as part of an ongoing study of the various conventional forms in Classical music (sonata, concerto, etc.), and also contributed to a larger, semester-long conversation about the ways in which we deal with the nebulous concept of "style" in music. Coming into the class itself, students possessed a basic knowledge of musical rudiments such as melody and harmony. For this particular activity, students had already been introduced to the idea of a "Theme and Variations" form, and had listened to several examples.

First, students are given a simple melody, accompanied by basic harmony (as seen in the pdf file below), on the chalkboard. The instructor should play the excerpt on the piano to let the class hear it once or twice. If desired, the class could also sing the melody aloud, etc., in order to familiarize themselves with it further. After studying the "prompt," students are given a piece of blank music paper (or a section of the chalkboard at which to work), and approximately 20 minutes in which to invent and write down their own variations on the melody. Students are encouraged to be creative, experiment with the given melody, and to draw on their own informal understandings of various musical styles (march, waltz, etc.) as they were set loose to compose. For the second half of the activity, invite the students to perform their variations, and to analyze and discuss them with classmates in a group discussion. Finally, in the original lesson, students were given a packet (attached) containing several pages from Carl Czerny's "School of Practical Composition" (1848), in which Czerny presents the melody under consideration, along with THIRTY-TWO possible variations. A discussion ensued about Czerny's ideas, the various possibilities for variation, where their own brief compositions did and did not fit into Czerny's taxonomy, and how the activity helped them to better understand different styles of musical writing. In the case of a large class, this final step could be omitted to save time, or moved to the next class meeting.

The goal of the activity was twofold: to get students thinking more concretely about one of the conventional Classical forms (Theme and Variations) by composing their own variations; and to add to the often nebulous conversation about musical style, by generating as many different examples as possible in a short amount of time (all from a common musical source), and discussing them. 

When delivering this activity, time is of the essence. Students need enough time to brainstorm and write their actual variations, but the instructor also needs to reserve time at the end in order to play and discuss each composition. In its initial iterations (in a 50-minute section), the instructor allowed approximately 25 minutes for composition, and 20 minutes for discussion. If time allows, or if the class is exceptionally large, the activity could be split across two consecutive class periods.


packet.pdf642 KB