Wikimedia Commons

Age Range: Elementary, Middle School

Learning Objective: Students will learn the definition of theme and variation and identify it in several listening examples.

ENGAGE students

SAY. “Composers sometimes like to take a familiar tune - that is, a theme or melody - and create variations, or different versions, of that melody.”

EXPLORE sounds

SAY. “A composer named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a famous theme and variations piece. Let’s listen to the first minute and see if you recognize it! Rather than say the name out loud, tap your head, so I know if you recognize the music.”

LISTEN. Listen to 30-60 seconds of music, and when most students recognize the piece, pause to announce the name. Then, continue on with one of the two listening options below.

12 Variations on Ah, vous dirai-je, maman, K. 265 - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Francesco Nicolosi, piano

EXPLORE (Option 1). For younger children or those who need a movement break, listen to the theme and each variation and use movement or a prop (scarf, ribbon, etc.) to move along with what you hear.

EXPLORE (Option 2). For older children, follow along with the listening map below. Most of the variations are about a minute long. In the box underneath each variation, there is a description of some of the sound. Ask students if they would add anything to the description. Alternatively, students could draw their own 3x13 listening grid and draw pictures under each theme instead of words.

Theme map
Katie Condon/MPR
Theme map
Katie Condon/MPR

EXTEND learning

Choose one or more of the following activities to extend learning.

CREATE. Create your own set of themes and variations. Select a short, simple and familiar melody, such as "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or "Happy Birthday."

  • Option 1: Sing it, and then try singing again, making a few changes. Here are a few ways you might try changing it.

    • Hold some notes longer and some notes shorter, changing the rhythm

    • Repeat a few words or phrases more often that you do when you sing the original theme

    • Make your singing voice "extra smooth" or "extra bumpy"

    • Change the volume, or dynamics, in new or unusual ways

  • Option 2: This option requires some music literacy/reading notated music.

    • Print out or draw some staff paper.

    • Notate the main melody.

    • Then try to create a few "decorated" versions. Here are a few suggestions for ideas to get started:

      • Pick a note, and add a few neighbor notes on either side of it.

      • Turn all your quarter notes into half notes to create serious or solemn variations. If you make all your note values go twice as fast, your variation will probably have a lot of energy.

      • Add a staccato symbol to every note to make it sound short and bumpy, or add a long slur to make all the notes sound smooth and connected.

      • Think about how you could vary the dynamics to make a new variation.

      • If you know how, try changing a major theme into a minor variation.

LISTEN. Listen to one or more theme and variation pieces.

Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a - Johannes Brahms
Brussels Philharmonic; Ali Rahbari, conductor
Variations on America - Charles Ives (orch. W. Schuman)
Seattle Symphony; Gerard Schwarz, conductor
Variations on a Korean Folk Song - John Barnes Chance
United States Army Field Band; William E. Clark, conductor

Related Lesson Plans

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