MUS 312 Form & Analysis

F. Variation Procedures

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A variation is simply a restatement of any musical entity that retains some elements of the original and changes others.

Procedures organized by the uninterrupted repetition of a short melodic or harmonic unit are termed: continuous variations.

Procedures whose themes and variations are closed, complete structural units are termed:  sectional variations.

Continuous Variations

Continuous variation procedures tend to fall into two types:

  • those based upon a single melodic unit (usually in the bass);
  • those based upon a harmonic progression.

The first type is appropriately called:  ground bass or basso continuo.

Two terms have been applied to both types:  chaconne and passacaglia. Chaconne, however, is more commonly associated with the latter.

*Recall from Counterpoint class:  chaconne refers to harmonic succession; passacaglia refers to a repeated melodic line.  They are at times difficult to distinguish.  (Memory tip: Relate the "ch" in chaconne to "ch"ord to remember that chaconne refers to a repeated chord/harmonic progression.)

General features of continuous variations:

  1. The theme (bass melody or harmonic progression) is usually repeated throughout in the same key.
  1. The process of variation is achieved by the changing character of elements other than the theme.
  1. The theme may be melodically or harmonically altered or ornamented.
  1. The theme may be subject to change in register.

Sectional Variations

In contrast to continuous variations, in which the theme is a short bass melody or a harmonic progression, the theme of sectional variations is a complete musical entity with melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic identity.

In addition, the theme is typically of larger dimensions than a single phrase--periodic or binary structures are commonly encountered--and reaches a definite conclusion before the first variation begins.  In the same manner, each variation is perceived as a self-contained musical unit.

General features of theme and variations compositions:

  1. The theme (particularly since the Classical period) is generally a binary structure.
  1. There are variation techniques that are commonly exploited, such as:  melodic ornamentation, melodic figuration, melodic simplification (representation of the theme's melody in skeletal form); changes in mode, meter, tempo; contrapuntal development; the use of attributes associated with other pieces, such as dance movements.

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