What if I came up with a theme in the morning, then improvised variations throughout the day? What would that add up to? Call it a variation on the theme and variations idea, but in the form of a diary of a single day in the life of Peter Saltzman.
Like the Sonata Allegro form I discussed in episode #26, the **Theme and Variations** form has a long history—and not just in classical music. In fact, having a theme, then varying it, is fundamental to the music-making process itself. And like the sonata-allegro form, the Theme and Variations form is, in some ways a primary way of creating music in larger structures.
- State a theme (usually, but not always in some song form)
- Improvise or compose multiple discrete variations on that theme By discrete, I mean that you, the listener, should be able to easily discern where one variation begins and ends. Each variation is, in a sense, its own little self-contained piece of music, and each will normally have a particular characteristic or characteristics that easily distinguishes it from the others. The attributes can include:
Key center and mode (major or minor)
Groove and time signature
3. End with a variation that acts as a fitting conclusion
Of course, how all of this unfolds depends on the era, the composer, and the context of the theme and variations itself. Often, as in the case of some Beethoven sonatas and symphonies (see the final movement of the Eroica), the form is used as a movement in a multi-movement piece.
In my case, at least for IOTL, the theme and variations are improvised. That is the part of the context for how these variations unfold. The other part is that I decided to relate each variation to something that was going on in my day. Or perhaps to describe my day in the form of improvised musical notes. It doesn’t matter in the end: the music works or doesn’t work on its own merits.