Joni Mitchell

Theme and Variations as a Songwriting Technique

A common musical form that classical composers have loved for centuries is theme and variations; a melody is repeated, changed in some way, but still similar enough to the original that it’s recognizable. It was a measure of a composer’s musical imagination, and fun for an audience to hear what might happen next with the theme.

It’s not just melody that might be changed. The melody might be repeated in a more-or-less intact form, with the rhythm changed, or perhaps the underlying chords.

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If you want to hear a perfect example of what I’m talking about, give Mozart’s “Ah vous diraie-je, Maman“, otherwise known as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” a listen. The melody is first played in a very plain way. With each variation, something is changed, but within all the changes, the original tune is recognizable.

As a songwriter, you’re not likely to write a theme and variations in the traditional way, but you might use the technique in trying to come up with a better melody, or a better arrangement.

Think of it this way: Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” started its life as a mid-tempo pop song, but more recently she has performed the song as a much slower ballad. The melody is still intact, with a few slight differences, with some modified chords and completely different arrangement. Now imagine putting both approaches together in the same song.

If you’ve written a song melody, but you wonder if there’s an even better melody, similar to what you’ve written, but a little different, try the following ideas.

  1. First, play and record your original melody with the chords you first thought of. If you’ve got lyrics, you can sing those of course, but you might do well to simply hum it, or sing it to a neutral syllable (“la la la…”).
  2. Sing your melody again, but improvise on the melodic shapes. Keep the basic outline of the melody, but try to find different “gestures” within that melody.
  3. Sing your original melody, but come up with a different chord progression. For example, if your song sticks to a standard C-F-G-C progression (I-IV-V-I), try this: Am-Dm-G-C (vi-ii-V-I). Then try it again, changing a chord every time.
  4. Sing your original melody to a new time signature. The most common choice is 4/4, with 3/4 being the next likely one. If you’ve created a melody in 4/4 time, simply shorten up one of the beats to move it into 3/4, and you’ll have a song with a completely different feel.
  5. Sing the original melody with new rhythms. Try elongating notes that were short, or shortening up bits that were originally long. Use your imagination, and see where it takes you.
  6. Consider one of your “variations” as material for a song intro. A good example might be Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”, which uses fragments of Sting’s backing vocal “I want my MTV” as a slow intro.

I don’t think I know of a pop musician who has done a traditional theme and variations the way a classical composer has. I’m not sure why not. It’s a great way to create variety and contrast within a song, though the idea probably belongs more in the prog rock world than pop.

As you can see, developing a melody and then coming up with variations allows you to explore all possibilities that melody offers. It requires you to expand on your original idea, stimulating your musical imagination.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Wow, interesting insights — will have to try these out! I see what you’re saying with the Joni Mitchell and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star songs. Great ideas for the early stages of the songwriting process, for sure!

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