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Theme and Variation

Aim: How can we identify and analyze theme and variation in language and in music?
Summary: Students explore different ways to change a simple sentence and melody to understand the concept of theme and variation.
Standards: US 3, 6, 7, 8; NYC 2, 3
Grade: 5th
Concept: Form
Artistic Process: performing, responding, creating
Materials: theme and variation audio recording, chart paper and markers
Time Required: 15 minutes


  1. Arrange the class in a circle. Ask one student to create and recite a simple sentence (the theme). Go around the circle and have each student recite the theme sentence, but with a different variation each time. The only rule is that you cannot say the sentence like anyone before you. Encourage the addition of body movement, body percussion, voice register, timbre, dynamics, and tempo.
  2. Have students discuss what they noticed.
    • What do we call something when we change it? (variation)
    • What are some of the variations that you noticed?
    • Variations are also found in music. What are some of the ways that you think a composer could create variations on a theme? (i.e. tempo, dynamics, instrumentation, rhythm and melody variations)
  3. Play Mozart’s variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” As students recognize the theme, have them raise their hands.
  4. Continue to play Mozart’s variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” As they listen, have students work in small groups to analyze how the variations are different than the theme.

Going Deeper

  1. Have students write variations on a familiar poem or story.
  2. Look at the score for Mozart’s variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and have students mark where they see the theme and variations in the printed music.
    Do you notice variations in the music that you didn’t hear in the recording?
    Download the score for “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”
  3. Have students compose their own variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or another familiar song.

Click here to listen to J.S. Bach’s entire set of 30 Goldberg Variations.


Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

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