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8.1 Theme and Variations

What are Theme and Variations?

  • A theme is a short melody/tune, sometimes with accompaniment.
  • It is followed by several variations, which modify, develop and adapt the original theme.
  • The adaptations always make sure that some elements of the original theme are still in the music.

Some famous Theme and Variations pieces from different musical periods

Baroque period (1600-1760): La Folia by Corelli, composed in 1700.

    Classical period (1760-1830): Diabelli Variations by Beethoven, composed in 1823.


    Romantic period (1830-1900): Variations on a Theme by Schumann' by Brahms, composed in 1863.


    C20th/Modern period (1900 onwards): A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra by Britten, composed in 1946.


Britten's 'Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

This is a really interesting piece of music which we are going to use as the basis for a piece of composition. Originally, the YouTube clip above was actually based on another piece of music, a 'Rondeau' written by a famous English composer, Henry Purcell.

Listening task

Listen again to both the start of Britten's 'Young Person's Guide', and Purcell's 'Rondeau'.

Try and make a list of similar and different musical features, with at least three in each.

Composition Task

Composition Brief: You are going to compose your own set of variations, based on the same theme that Purcell and Britten both used. To start with, you need to choose a task from the table below:

Level Variations Composition Elements
5 2 Vary melody and rhythm
6 3 Vary melody and rhythm, and add some dynamics, score markings
7+ 2/3 Vary melody, rhythm and accompaniment/chords, with dynamics, score markings

Once you start, you can move onto the next level up, so you are not stuck on the level that you choose at the start of the task. You will have time over three or four lessons to complete this task.

Assessment: Your piece will be assessed using the KS 3 Composition Mark Scheme. Your teacher will let you know how successfully you have managed the brief and different elements of music, and you will be given some specific ideas about how to improve your composition for next time. Your feedback will be emailed to your school email address.

Here are some examples below of different attempts:

Level 5

Level 6

Level 7

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