Variation Techniques for Composers and Improvisors

copyright © 2002 by Larry J. Solomon


augmentation write/play in longer (slower) note values
articulation staccato, legato, tenuto, etc.
breathing silences between sounds
cycles/rotations cycling through figures; e.g., Alberti bass
diminution write/play in faster note values
directed motion motion towards a goal
elision subtract note/s
fragmentation a segment of a theme
hard/soft edge harder or softer definition
interpolation interject new (added) tones
interruption tones that substitute for expected goal tones; e.g., climax of Wagner's Tristan & Isolde, act 2
interval contraction smaller intervals, same contour; e.g., Liszt's Les Preludes
interval expansion larger intervals, same contour; e.g., Liszt's Les Preludes
inversion mirrored contour; e.g., subject and inversion in Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, first movement
isomelos same notes, different rhythm; used constantly in dodecaphony
microtones intervals smaller than a semitone
non-tonal scales scale structures that are symmetric in content; e.g., whole-tone scale, which has no differences to imply a tonic
octave displacement melody with tones played in differing octave registers; occurs frequently ion Webern's music
ornamentation embellishment of a given figure or framework, such as a trill
permutation change the order of pitches
prolongation goal tones used as skeleton for long lines
retrograde inversion a backwards inversion; much used in dodecaphony
retrograde a theme backwards
serial technique a constant ordering of pitch-classes, rhythms, etc.
shaping a dynamic/time contour
subcomplex extracted non-consecutive tones as a nucleus
subtraction /elision a theme/motive with subtracted tones
translation figures that are repeated in time or pitch
transposition a figure higher or lower in pitch

Harmony & Accompaniment

accompaniment/framework skeletal backdrop for other instruments
clusters/sound mass large secundal chords
harmonic rhythm rate of harmonic change
minimal process repetitive process on small number of elements; e.g., Terry Riley's In C; Phillip Glass's Koyanisqatsi
non-tertian chords chord structures not based on thirds; e.g., quartal chords
nucleus a special set used as a primary focus; e.g., A, C, C# in Scriabin's Op. 74/4
ostinati obstinate, unchanging figures or aspects, usually in the bass
stasis a static figure, commonly background; e.g., repeating chord figure
substitution a chord, line, etc. that substitutes for others; e.g., ii for IV
translation figures that are repeated in time or pitch; e.g., sequence
unravelling an arpeggiation or spinning out of structures; e.g., chord arpeggiation


ametric without any feeling of meter; e.g., chant
augmentation motive at a slower tempo; longer notes; e.g., Bach's fugues
automoton like a machine; mechanically
diminution a motive at a faster tempo; e.g., Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead (uses Dies Irae)
hemiola change of meter within another; e.g., duple within triple (Brahms); similar to multimeter, but without a change of meter signature; also, used for unwritten polymeters (Schubert)
homorhythm simultaneous ensemble attacks
isorhythm changing pitches, same rhythm; e.g., isorhythmic motets
isomelos changing rhythm, same pitches
metric modulation changing the length of the pulse group
multi-meter changing meters; 4/4 to 5/8 to 6/8, etc.; e.g., Stravinsky's La Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring)
physical action reflexive, muscular movements
polymeters different meters simultaneously; e.g., 2/4 + 3/4; e.g., Ives's Scherzo, Over the Pavements
polyrhythm distinctly divergent simultaneous rhythmic patterns; e.g., Ives's Scherzo, Over the Pavements
suspended time very long static events, with nothing much else happening
syncopation unexpected rhythms; e.g., Ives's Scherzo, Over the Pavements
tempo faster, aggitated, or slower, calmer
tempo modulation periodically accel. or decel.


imitation statements of the same idea by successive voices, normally in counterpoint; Renaissance motets
isotrophy harmonic planes or blocks of sound moving in opposite directions
layering/stratification repetitions in each part layered with other parts; e.g., Berlioz's Requiem, the Offertory
planing moving chords in parallel motion; e.g., in Debussy's Preludes
polarization one of two opposites; e.g., antiphony; e.g., Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste
texture change dropping in or out; e.g., adding/subtracting voices/instruments; e.g., Ravel's Bolero
texture modulation gradually thinning or thickening; e.g., Ravel's Bolero
density increasing or decreasing the number of notes per unit time or space; e.g., Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste


atonality (see pantonality)
modality use of modes other than major/minor; e.g., Hungarian folksongs
modulation a changing tonal focus; a change of key
pandiatonic all tones of a diatonic scale treated with equal importance
pantonality all (12) tones with equal importance
polymodality more than one mode at a time; e.g., Dorian and Major simultaneously
polytonality more than one tonic at the same time; e.g., Stravinsky's La Sacre du Printemps
tonal axis tonic/dominant syntax/substitution


crossing voices crossing over or under a given voice
doublings dup.pc , parallel motion
voicing open/close, smooth/disjunct
underlap crossing under a given line


electronic alteration filtration or other electronic changes
extended techniques unusual playing methods on conventional instruments; e.g., Berio's Sequenza's and Visage; Cowell's Banshee, Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano
klangfarbenmelodie alternating melodic tones with other instrument/s; e.g., Webern's orchestration of Bach's Ricecar from The Musical Offering, and Symphony
metamorphosis changing one idea gradually into another; e.g., Liszt's Les Preludes, Bartok's String Quartet No. 2
multiphonics chords or harmonic intervals produced from harmonics
pointillism short single bursts of instrumental color interjected among others; e.g., Webern's Concerto, op. 24
sprechstimme nearly spoken song; e.g., Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire
timbre modulation changing the dynamic balance; e.g., Carter's Etude #7 from Eight Etudes and a Fantasy


balance louder or softer compared with other parts
dynamic modulation solo cresc./decresc. differing with other parts
terraced dynamics a sudden change in loudness level


indeterminacy sounds not under control of a composer and performer; e.g., Cage's 4'33"
moment form constant figures used to unify short sections; e.g., Stockhausen Momente
overlap dovetailing old and new ideas in transition
parody quotations of sections of pre-existing music; e.g., Schubert's March Militaire in Stravinsky's Circus Polka
stochastic (Xenakis) a controlled chance structure using probability theory
surprise a sudden contrast; e.g., Haydn's Surprise Symphony
transition a bridge from from one idea to another; e.g., Beethoven's Symphony No 5, 3rd to 4th movements
union a joining together of non-consecutive structures


antiphony spatial responses
beating tone slightly out of unison with other parts
debate argumentatively
spatial modulation motion during performance
synaesthesia a mixing of sensory stimuli (smell, sight, touch, etc.)