Theme and Variation

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With visual objects, we can choose our theme, and then look for variation in things like size, color, fill, position, or repetition. 

Observe and Create

  • As you travel around the city or your neighborhood, look for theme and variation in buildings and houses.
  • With materials of your choice (pasta, construction paper, small pom-poms, crayons, markers), create a theme and variations collage. 


The seasons (winter into spring) play a part in Micah Levy’s story of Mary Had A Little Lamb performed by the Utah Symphony.  A movement of Vivaldi’s Spring from Four Seasons is featured in the performance.  Think of some elements of weather (like precipitation).  Think of some of  these elements change, or vary, from season to season.  If you have lived in other climates, compare those as well. 

In Music

musicIn music, theme and variation is one of the easiest ways to learn to listen for the elements of music. 

Check out the materials below to learn more about theme and variations and the elements of music.  

Have fun listening to Mozart’s concert variations on a French folk song “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman.”  We know it better as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.  Listen for what changes in each variation as a young George Li performs it at the link below.  Mr. Li performs with the Utah Symphony on March 25/26 playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2.

American composer Charles Ives wrote a great set of variations using the melody of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”.  Listen to his Variations on America at the link below.

The materials below can be found on this website.  They were created for use in the classroom, but will be fun to explore with your children at home.

the Elements of Music

melody  - We often call this the tune.  This will often stay the same. But sometimes the melody can be the lowest sound instead of “on the top”.  Sometimes we hear a countermelody.  Sometimes a melody will be ornamented or embellished.  

Tempo – How fast or slow the music is.

Harmony –  Two or more notes sounding together.  We often think of a harmony line in relation to the melody.  The melody invites a friend over to play.

Dynamics – How loud or soft the music is.  Sometimes different parts might change the dynamics.  Since we expect the melody to stand out, it can get our attention if the harmony and accompaniment are played more loudly than the melody.

Meter – This is the arrangement of the strong and weak beats.  A tune that is familiar in one meter (as we know Mary Had a Little Lamb in a duple meter of 4/4), it’s interesting to hear it in a triple meter like 3/4.

Rhythm – This is the arrangement, in time, of the notes around the beats.  There might be one note per beat, or two or three or more.  Sometimes a note is held for more than one beat. 

Tonality – We are most familiar with a major or minor tonality, each of which is built upon a scale by the same name.  Music in a major key has a brighter, more open sound.  Some people say it sounds “happy.”  Music in a minor key has a darker, more introspective sound.  Some people say it sounds “sad.”   In some music of eastern European folk music, far-eastern folk music, or even American blues, the use of different scales gives the music an identifiable tonality. 

Timbre – The particular, distinctive sound of which instruments are used, alone or in combination

articulation – This is the way the sounds are connected (or not) to each other.  Think of legato and staccato.

 To review the elements of music use our "Elements of Music" PowerPoint Presentation on our teacher materials page.


String Family

Theme:             instruments made of similarly-shaped wood; each has four strings that produce sound when they vibrate; string instruments are most often played using a bow, but sometimes are plucked with the fingers 

Variation:          the four instruments are different sizes; as they get bigger, the sounds they make get lower

Woodwind Family

Theme:             originally all the instruments were made of wood; modern flutes are made of metal; all woodwinds produce sound when the musician blows into the column of air inside the instrument 

Variation:          each woodwind has a unique sound; each mouthpiece is different and the instrument shapes are different; some have a single reed and some have double reeds; the flute has no reed at all

Brass Family

Theme:             all brass instruments are made of metal; musicians buzz their lips as they blow air into the instrument to create sound  

Variation:          the different shapes and sizes of brass instruments create unique sounds; some brass instruments use valves to get different pitches; the trombone has a slide

Percussion Family

Theme:             anything that can be struck, shaken, rubbed or scraped can be a percussion instrument

Variation:          the percussion section is all about variety; many percussion instruments have an indefinite pitch, while a few have defined pitches

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