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Understanding musical scores
Understanding musical scores

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2.1 Variations on a theme

Figure 1

We’re sure you recognised the melody in the piano piece in the video in the previous section. We know it as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, but it exists in slightly different forms in several European folk traditions. The French call it Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman and the Germans know it as a Christmas song, Morgen kommt der Weihnachtsmann.

We’re going to use this set of variations by Mozart to demonstrate how a piano score works and to guide you towards understanding how several simultaneous lines of music look and sound.

The principle of variation form is that a simple theme, often a well-known melody, generates more and more complex music, culminating in an exciting finale, but at every point along the way, some element of the original theme is present and recognisable. A set of variations is a good starting point when learning about piano scores because there will always be something – often the melody – which is familiar in each variation, which may be used as a point of reference while listening and following the score. This is similar to a series of art prints, where the image is recognisably the same, but has difference in colour, orientation, detail and so on. So, the melody might be spread out over lots of fast notes, there might be a whole range of different rhythms, or the melody might be hidden inside several parts all weaving together, but you should be able to find something familiar in each variation.