Theme and Melodic Variations

Posted by Scott Nygaard

Creating variations on a melody has long been a great way to expand a simple musical idea into a complete piece of music. Classical composers have used the idea—J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and Mozart’s “Variations on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” come to mind. But so have others, especially bluegrass fiddlers competing at fiddle contests and jazz musicians creating new approaches to soloing. Rather than the contemporary approach of basing solos on the harmonic implications of a tune, early jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke would modify the melody of a song with syncopation, elisions, and other variation techniques, and many of today’s best improvisers do the same. As a nod to the classical composers who pioneered the theme-and-variations approach, in this lesson we’ll take a classical theme and show you how to create some simple variations. 

Click to enlarge tab.

For our theme, we’ll use the first two measures of the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem. This short introduction, played by the strings before the voices enter, introduces the basic harmonic and melodic material Mozart used for the rest of the movement. It’s slow, mournful, dramatic, and quite playable on guitar.

Play the first two bars (labeled “Theme”) of the piece shown here. Don’t be intimidated by all the eighth notes. It’s a very slow piece; if you set your metronome to 80 and have it sound on every eighth note, you’ll have the right tempo. Play it through a few times to get an idea of the musical material we’re going to be using, but don’t worry about playing it perfectly. We’re going to change it—and simplify it—immediately.

One of the simplest ways to vary a melody is to move it to a different octave. So let’s do that first, dropping it down an octave and into first position [Variation 1]. Notice that I’m using just the top part of the theme here as the melody.

Excerpted from AG 177 September 2007

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