Friday, May 29, 2015

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star: Variations in Compositions

Theme and variation is a popular musical form in which a composer states a melody and then repeats it several times with changes to create interest and variety. 

You could think of the theme as a plain cupcake. First, the composer shows the plain cupcake to the audience.  The variations are like decorated cupcakes.  Once the audience understands the plain cupcake, the  decorated ones are displayed for everyone to enjoy with their fancy differences.  Nevertheless, they are still recognizable as cupcakes!  Let's take a look at "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and taste the deliciousness of what your young composer is learning from studying it during the 3rd year of Let's Play Music!

The Poem
Lyrics for this popular lullaby come from an 1806 poem, "Star", published by Jane Taylor. Jane was a real trailblazer because she and her sister helped introduce the novel idea of writing poetry just for children.  Here is the entire original poem:

A sing-along storybook is available. By Jane Cabrera.
  Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

     How I wonder what you are!
     Up above the world so high,
     Like a diamond in the sky.

     When the blazing sun is gone,
     When he nothing shines upon,

     Then you show your little light,
     Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

     Then the traveller in the dark
     Thanks you for your tiny sparks;
     He could not see which way to go,
     If you did not twinkle so.

     In the dark blue sky you keep,
     And often through my curtains peep,
     For you never shut your eye
     'Till the sun is in the sky.

     As your bright and tiny spark
     Lights the traveller in the dark,
     Though I know not what you are,
     Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

The Melody (and a Silly Game)
"Twinkle" is only one of many international songs that have been sung to the melody Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman, a popular 18th century French children's tune.  In English, "The Alphabet Song" and "Baa-baa Blacksheep" are two more songs sung to the tune.

As a kid, I played a singing game with my sisters, and you might like to try it in your family: each of three singers (or teams) choose one of the above songs, then all sing at the same time.  Although the lyrics are different, the melody is the same for everyone.  Silly, right!?  For an even trickier song, sing in a round, starting a few measures behind the previous singer, still singing different lyrics.  Still not silly enough?!  For the best song yet, all start singing together, but each time the leader claps, switch to different lyrics!  Each group will end up singing a different crazy song, perhaps like this:

     SINGER 1                                                      SINGER 2
     Twinkle, twinkle, little star  (CLAP)                    Baa, Baa black sheep have you any wool?
     yes sir, yes sir, three bags full  (CLAP)              H I J K, LMNOP
     Q R S, T U V  (CLAP)                                       Up above the world so high
     Like a diamond in the sky…                              And one for the little boy who lives...

Apparently the best time to try this game is while trapped in the car with the entire family on a very long road trip.  We "entertained" our brothers and parents for hours and hours with our giggling.  

Nevertheless, if a melody is simple and memorable, it's likely to be the perfect place to start for creating variations.

Variations: Frosting on the Cake
The composition we study in Let's Play Music during the Orange semester is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's, "Variations on 'Ah vous dirai-je, Maman!'" with his twelve variations of the tune.  You know all about ABA form, but this is A-AI-AII-AIII-AIV….AXII form.

Just about every student of composition utilizes Theme and Variation to stretch their composing skills, and you can too.  Actually, after Mozart composed variations on this particular tune in 1781, the SAME TUNE was used by several other composers to create their own variations, including: Bach, Schulhoff, Dohnanyi, Liszt, Rinck, and Cardon!

Now your child (and you!) are ready to have some fun with variations.  It's like you want to decorate some of those beautiful cupcakes.  Options are limitless, but first you want to know: What colors of frosting are available?  What kinds of sprinkles do we have? What sizes of piping tips are there? Yes, if you want to decorate, it's good to understand your tools, so lets look inside Mozart's toolbox.

Variations are created by altering the rhythm, melody, harmony, pitch, tempo, or dynamics of the tune.  

Mozart's Toolbox of Variations

Grab your Orange Roots CD and read this post as you listen along. Let's figure out what he did to create each variation. (Yes, all twelve. You may need a cupcake for nourishment).  Then YOU, TOO, will have the power to add variation to YOUR compositions.  Let's also imagine you have a really simple composition to work with, like Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol, and maybe we will play with it just like Mozart would.

Theme: First Mozart presents the theme, which sounds pretty much like "Twinkle."

 Variation 1: The right hand still plays the melody, but it is embellished with running notes (notes running between the important ones that carry the actual melody).  That is to say, where a single note was played in the 'theme', three extra notes have been squished in.  So each quarter note bug has been turned into four sixteenth notes (a caterpillar). It sounds fast and busy. 

What you can do: You could add the easiest ever extra notes…just double or triple notes of your theme by turning bugs into beetles.  Do-do Re-re Mi-mi, etc. is a variation.  Or to really make them running notes (moving up and down scales) you can add just about any baby steps, so long as you remember to hit your important melody notes sometimes.  Maybe you'll have Do-re-mi-re Re-mi-fa-mi Mi-fa-sol-fa, etc.  The bold notes are just reminders of what part of this new tune came from the theme.

Variation 2: The right hand still plays the melody, but the left hand is filled with running sixteenth notes (caterpillars). 

What you can do: We didn't talk about your left hand part, but most of my students begin with block chords. There are many ways you could get some extra fun notes in there.  You could start playing the low note of the chord, jump to the high note, and add a few baby steps down. Do-sol-fa-mi, Ti-sol-fa-mi, Do-sol-fa-mi  replaces a slow Red, Yellow, Red.  That sounds fast and fun!

Variation 3: The right hand plays the melody in triplets. A triplet means three notes make up one count.  We don't formally introduce this rhythm, but for fun (after I point out what is going on at this point), I like to have the class pat their laps while chanting "bug. bug. bug."  I come in with "one-trip-let. two-trip-let. three-trip-let." just so they can hear how I manage to fit three claps into their one beat.

Variation 4: You guessed it. Mozart plays triplets with the left hand.

Variation 5: The right hand plays the melody in an off-beat pattern.  This is a really whimsical way to dramatically change the rhythm. The right hand plays an eighth note- quarter note pair, then the left hand plays a pair, and they take turns.  

What you can do: When you mastered Yankee Doodle recently, you got the feeling of having your hands take turns. Yeah, both hands don't always have to strike at the exact same!  Play a creative rhythm to go along with some of your melody notes, then give the left hand a chance to play something with that rhythm.  Take turns. Fun!

Variation 6: The right hand STILL plays the melody but this is cool: instead of playing one note for melody, the note is played as part of a chord. Yay! Our students know how to do that!  Doesn't it sound big and strong and smashing?  The left hand goes back to playing with running caterpillars.

What you can do: If you want to stick to the Red, Yellow, and Blue chords, you can find a chord that includes each note of your melody.  Do-Re-Mi-Fa could use Red-Yellow-Red-Blue.  Now, to play those chords but make them sound like melody, choose an inversion of the chord so that the melody note is at the top.  You can do it! You know how to play with inversions. Take your time. The right hand gets to play slowly in this variation so you can jump your hand around if you need to.

Variation 7: The right hand goes back to running caterpillars. This time Mozart really did push to make the running notes into almost complete scales instead of just zig-zagging baby steps. He also mixes in his cool idea of having the left hand strike a note while the right hand rests. Fancy!

Variation 8: This variation is in C minor. That alone can make for an exciting change, but he also has the left hand echo the notes after the right hand plays.

What you can do: Whatever key you have written your composition in, you will add flats to change a few solfeggi.  Do-Re-me-Fa-Sol-le-te-Do is the minor scale we presented in class a few times. (The minor solfeggi are pronounced 'may', 'lay' and 'tay'.)  Figure out where your three flats need to be and you are ready to fly minor!

Variation 9: The theme is played staccato.  Your student knows all about staccato and could easily give it a try in her own work.

Variation 10: The left hand plays the melody, and the right hand embellishes.  Mozart has the right hand rest on the beats when the melody notes are played by the left. It really helps those notes stand out.

What you can do: I have several students who love to "flip" their work and let the left hand carry the melody while the right hand does something else.  The right hand could play a chord root, or a broken chord, or experiment with simple embellishments like Mozart does. I will play the left hand melody slowly and let the student use his right hand to experiment with possible ideas until we find something that sounds interesting.

Variation 11: This is one of the only variations where tempo, Adagio, is indicated.  Adagio means slow.  The theme is played in a singing style; you could certainly imagine someone humming or singing these lullaby notes.  Musical style indicates a piece follows conventions that give it a distinct sound, characteristic to the group.  We had fun with the Monsters puppet show by Prokofiev when we showed it performed in seven different styles.  I especially love the reverse: when pianists take pop songs and play them in classical style!

What you can do: Your student experimented this semester with how to change the stylistic feel of a song by playing chords in a broken style, root-note-only, or even a two-handed marching style.  You can take one melody all the way from a big loud parade march to a nice, slow, lullaby by changing the stylistic interpretation.  Try some of the ideas from class on your song.

Variation 12: This time the tempo is indicated as Allegro, which means fast. The melody has interesting rhythms and decorations, and the left hand is back to those caterpillars.  When I listen to this big, fast, exciting ending, I can just feel my heartbeat start picking up pace.

What you can do: Think of something special (loud? quiet? fast?) and slightly different to end your song with just the right feeling to send your audience home with.

This is not an exhaustive toolbox, but now you know some ways Mozart made his music interesting, so give them a try in your composing. If you hit a creative block, take a break to bake some cupcakes and they'll surely get your creative juices flowing.

- Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher

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