Theme and variations is one of many musical forms, that dates back to the Classical period and is still in use today. First things first--what's a form? Well, form as you know is short for “formula;” musical forms are essentially different formulas for how material is organized in a composition to make it a cohesive piece. In layman's terms: form is what makes a piece make sense.
There are several basic forms that became popular during the Classical period (1700's and 1800's, Mozart and Beethoven's time), some of which are still in use today. There are entire libraries written about the Classical period, but one of the main things you should know is that, during that time period, music was supposed to appeal to the average listener; most of the people in concert halls did not have any sort of musical training at all, so the music was supposed to be easy for the audience to “understand,” i.e. easily recognizable melodies, phrases, harmonies, and of course, forms. There are tons of textbooks that talk about the forms of that period: sonata, rondo, scherzo, minuet and trio, etc...and of course, theme and variation (which I will know refer to as t&v).
Let's take a look at an example t&v; this example is aptly named “Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” by Romantic period composer Johannes Brahms. You certainly do not. need to listen to this entire thing to get the idea, but I encourage you to because it's AWESOME. When you listened to it, you probably said, “Hey, this piece is just the same basic melody, or harmony, or rhythm over and over again. Brahms just messes with it in different, crazy ways.” This is all part of the form called theme and variations (t&v). In t&v, you can literally vary ANYTHING: texture, instrumentation, rhythm, meter, key, register, harmony, etc. The possibilities are never-ending...which Brahms proved by writing twenty minutes worth of variations. He chose a theme by Classical composer Haydn, introduced it to you, and then varied different aspects of it throughout the course of the piece, while retaining some kind of recognizable elements of it.
“Cool...hey, wait! Isn't that what Koji Kondo did for the levels in Super Mario World?”
YES. YES IT IS.
I can't think of a more perfect example of theme and variation in the context of a video game. All the elements are there! Kondo created his main melody, and for the rest of the game, he messes with it. BAM. In a classical t&v, the theme is introduced first, and then the variations follow. Since the very first level we play contains the Overworld, then we call the Overworld the theme, and the rest of the levels following it the variations. Let's take a looksy (and you should listen to the tracks too, links on the Arrangement page!):
1) Overworld. Straightforward. Tuba hammers out the bassline, the jumpy banjo fills out the chords, and steel drum beats the melody in your face. Only in Super Mario World would all of those instruments work so perfectly together. Genius.
2) Underwater. The theme is now in a different meter; the original theme was in common time (4/4), while this variation is in a dreamy waltz (3/4).
3) Underground. In that low, percussive marimba, there's our friend, the ostinato! This is a perfect example of one of the most common uses of ostinato: as a variation technique. The composer can go completely nuts on the melody, harmony and rhythm of the theme, while the ostinato binds everything together.
4) Athletic. (No sheet music yet, sorry!) Now we've taken the theme and put it into a new musical style: a rag (short for “ragtime”). This is also a common way to vary a theme; for example, many composers have at least one movement that puts the theme into a “jig” format, which is a dance in 6/8. Lastly, it's in a different key.
5) Bonus Level. Almost forgot about this one! The changes in this one are not as drastic as in the other variations; it's been pushed to a more rapid tempo, with a new accompanimental pattern in the bass and steel drums. And of course, nonstop bongos. FTW.
Now, just to clarify: for game music to be considered t&v, it's not enough to just bring back the theme over and over again in a video game soundtrack. There's a difference between using a leitmotif (recurring theme) and actually constructing a classical theme and variation, where the variations are very distinct and clearly divided. But we'll talk about that more next time!
Enjoy this week's arrangements for Underground Theme, Bonus Level, and the map themes for Bowser's Valley and Special Zone! More on the way!