In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Variation Form

  • Introduction
  • General Sources
  • Reference Works

Music Variation Form
Judith Ofcarcik, Gillian Robertson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0289


For centuries, variations have garnered the attention of Western composers and amassed popularity among virtuosi and audiences alike. Unfortunately, the reception of this form type within the scholarly community is less enthusiastic, especially in comparison to sonata form, which continues to draw curiosity and inquiry. This is unfortunate, as scholars who analyze variations are faced with fundamental musical questions such as: Where are the borders drawn between same, similar, and different musical material? How does a listener determine whether one passage is a variation of another? How does a composer signal that a piece is finished, and is this signal always convincing? Do musical events need to occur in a particular order to make sense, or can the ordering be changed without serious consequences? Variation form brings these issues to the fore, and the works listed in this article engage them in a variety of ways. Sections are primarily organized chronologically by time period, focusing on stylistic eras, composers, and specific compositions. Of note to readers is the almost exclusive focus on instrumental works and the limited sources addressing music written before the baroque period. There is a notable emphasis on the “canon” and “canonic composers,” especially J. S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Mozart, and Johannes Brahms, as well as structural approaches to analysis (particularly the writings of Heinrich Schenker). These shortcomings and limited perspectives reflect the current state of research on variation form; we encourage new research that will diversify the range of scholarship on this topic in regard to composers, repertoires, and analytical approaches. In particular, hermeneutic/semiotic/narrative approaches to variation form are particularly appealing, and works by underrepresented composers deserve analytical attention and scholarship.

General Sources

These sources all deal with issues brought to the fore by variation form rather than focusing on a particular corpus. Among these, Ivanovitch 2010 and Swinkin 2004 delve into the relationship between theme and variation, exploring what exactly “counts” as a variation, while Escal 1988 explores the nature of “theme.” Goodman 1988 is not explicitly about music yet it addresses many of the problems of variations analysis in a particularly cogent way (and is cited by Ivanovitch and Swinkin). Nelson 1949 is the only published book that deals with variation form exclusively, and is an essential resource for variations scholars. Murphy 1948 and Tovey 1935 provide general information about the genre and lists of pieces to study that would be helpful for scholars and instructors new to variations analysis. Cooper and Buurman 2012 and Yasser 1956 use a single piece to explore broader issues within the genre: the former examines the influence one composition exerted over many composers and the latter argues that variation form, as the only form found in all of the arts, is the ideal medium for creating multimedia artworks.

  • Cooper, Barry, and Erica Buurman. “The Influence of Wolfgang Ebner’s Ferdinand Variations on Bach, Beethoven and Others.” The Musical Times 153.1921 (2012): 17–28.

    Provides an overview (historical and analytical) of Ebner’s Ferdinand Variations and then traces correspondences between this work and others, including Bach’s “Goldberg” set, Archduke Rudolph’s Forty Variations, Beethoven’s “Diabelli” set, and Franz Schubert’s Four Impromptus.

  • Escal, Françoise. “Le thème en musique classique.” Communications 47.1 (1988): 93–117.

    DOI: 10.3406/comm.1988.1708

    Wide-ranging exploration of the notion of “theme” in musical, literary, and linguistic discourse. Addresses variations and variation form through a philosophical rumination on the experience of repetition and the potential “subject” of variation form.

  • Goodman, Nelson. “Variations on Variation—or Picasso Back to Bach.” In Reconceptions in Philosophy and Other Arts and Sciences. Edited by Nelson Goodman and Catherine Elgin, 62–82. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1988.

    Philosophical exploration of variation in music and the visual arts. “Variation” in this article is situated somewhere between variation as technique and variation as form. Discusses how a variation might relate to a theme and also addresses ordering. Although written by a philosopher and not specifically a music scholar, many have found this article to be a catalyst for new ways of thinking about variations.

  • Ivanovitch, Roman. “What’s in a Theme? On the Nature of Variation.” Gamut: Online Journal of the Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlantic 3.1 (2010): 3.

    Deals with the abstract nature of a theme for variation and how theme and variation are brought together in the listener’s mind. Emphasizes temporal context and genre identity over a simple accounting of elements retained and elements varied. Provides a detailed reading of Goodman 1988 and brief discussions of the Goldberg and Diabelli sets as well as the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K. 488.

  • Murphy, Howard. Form in Music for the Listener. 2d ed. Camden, NJ: Radio Corporation of America, 1948.

    Chapter on variation form includes a cogent overview of the genre with discussion of selected pieces; provides a listening list of works across a relatively wide time span. Dated (missing contemporary examples and listening list is a list of Radio Corporation of America [RCA] records) but easy to read and informative.

  • Nelson, Robert. The Technique of Variation: A Study of the Instrumental Variation from Antonio de Cabezón to Max Reger. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1949.

    The only monograph to focus exclusively on variation form, spanning the genre from the Renaissance to the early 20th century. Primarily an overview of changing variation techniques across history, including brief analytical remarks on a large number of sets. The appendix includes longer analyses of representative pieces from four eras. An essential read for the variations analyst.

  • Swinkin, Jeffrey. “Reference and Schenkerian Structure: Toward a Theory of Variation.” Indiana Theory Review 25 (2004): 177–221.

    Detailed analysis of Goodman 1988, unpacking the philosophical underpinnings of Goodman’s arguments. Demonstrates Goodman’s theory, with the author’s own emendations, through an analysis of Mozart’s variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman,” K. 265/330e. Addresses correspondences among variations as well as between theme and variations.

  • Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis. Vol. 2, Symphonies (II), Variations and Orchestral Polyphony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935.

    “Variations” chapter briefly addresses eight sets of symphonic variations by Beethoven, Brahms, Antonín Dvořák, Hubert Parry, and Felix Mendelssohn. A separate chapter (in “Symphonies”) on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony includes a more extended analysis of the two variation movements.

  • Yasser, Joseph. “The Variation Form and Synthesis of Arts.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 14.3 (1956): 318–323.

    DOI: 10.2307/427048

    Addresses the question of whether it is possible to combine multiple art forms (such as music, visual arts, choreography, and poetry) in a way that does not decrease the value of any. Suggests variation form, a form possible in all of the arts, as a means of organizing such a synthesis. Provides an example of a highly successful synthesis built on variation form—a particular production of a ballet set to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

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