Developing variation

Last updated

In music composition, developing variation is a formal technique in which the concepts of development and variation are united in that variations are produced through the development of existing material.

The term was coined by Arnold Schoenberg, twentieth-century composer and inventor of the twelve-tone technique, who believed it was one of the most important compositional principles since around 1750: [1]

Music of the homophonic-melodic style of composition, that is, music with a main theme, accompanied by and based on harmony, produces its material by, as I call it, developing variation. This means that variation of the features of a basic unit produces all the thematic formulations which provide for fluency, contrasts, variety, logic and unity, on the one hand, and character, mood, expression, and every needed differentiation, on the other hand—thus elaborating the idea of the piece. [2]

Schoenberg distinguished this from the "unravelling" procedures of contrapuntal tonal music but developing variation may be related to other textures and to Schoenberg's own freely atonal pieces which employ a "method of atonal developing variation each chord, line, and harmony results from the subtle alteration and recombination of musical ideas from earlier in the piece" and Schoenberg describes its importance to his development of serialism. [1]

Similarly, as in the case of Die Jakobsleiter , here also all main themes had to be transformations of the first phrase. Already here the basic motif was not only productive in furnishing new motif-forms through developing variations, but also in producing more remote formulations based on the unifying effect of one common factor: the repetition of tonal and intervallic relationship. [3]

Haimo [1] applies the concept to vertical (pitch) as well as horizontal (rhythm and permutation) transformations in twelve-tone music on the premise of "the 'unity of musical space'" after suggesting that Schoenberg reconciled serial organization and developing variation in the twelve-tone technique.

Related Research Articles

In music, a tone row or note row, also series or set, is a non-repetitive ordering of a set of pitch-classes, typically of the twelve notes in musical set theory of the chromatic scale, though both larger and smaller sets are sometimes found.

Atonality Music that lacks a tonal center or key

Atonality in its broadest sense is music that lacks a tonal center, or key. Atonality, in this sense, usually describes compositions written from about 1908 to the present day, where a hierarchy of pitches focusing on a single, central tone is not used, and the notes of the chromatic scale function independently of one another. More narrowly, the term atonality describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. "The repertory of atonal music is characterized by the occurrence of pitches in novel combinations, as well as by the occurrence of familiar pitch combinations in unfamiliar environments".

Arnold Schoenberg Austrian-American composer (1874–1951)

Arnold Schoenberg or Schönberg was an Austrian-born composer, music theorist, teacher, writer, and painter. He is widely considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. He was associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art, and leader of the Second Viennese School. As a Jewish composer, Schoenberg was targeted by the Nazi Party, which labeled his works as degenerate music and forbade them from being published. He emigrated to the United States in 1933, becoming an American citizen in 1941.

The Second Viennese School is the group of composers that comprised Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils, particularly Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and close associates in early 20th-century Vienna, where Schoenberg lived and taught, sporadically, between 1903 and 1925. Their music was initially characterized by late-Romantic expanded tonality and later, following Schoenberg's own evolution, a totally chromatic expressionism without firm tonal centre, often referred to as atonality; and later still, Schoenberg's serial twelve-tone technique. Adorno said that the twelve-tone method, when it had evolved into maturity, was a "veritable message in a bottle", addressed to an unknown and uncertain future. Though this common development took place, it neither followed a common time-line nor a cooperative path. Likewise, it was not a direct result of Schoenberg's teaching—which, as his various published textbooks demonstrate, was highly traditional and conservative. Schoenberg's textbooks also reveal that the Second Viennese School spawned not from the development of his serial method, but rather from the influence of his creative example.

In music, serialism is a method of composition using series of pitches, rhythms, dynamics, timbres or other musical elements. Serialism began primarily with Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, though some of his contemporaries were also working to establish serialism as a form of post-tonal thinking. Twelve-tone technique orders the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, forming a row or series and providing a unifying basis for a composition's melody, harmony, structural progressions, and variations. Other types of serialism also work with sets, collections of objects, but not necessarily with fixed-order series, and extend the technique to other musical dimensions, such as duration, dynamics, and timbre.

Twelve-tone technique Musical composition method using all 12 chromatic scale notes equally often & not in a key

The twelve-tone technique—also known as dodecaphony, twelve-tone serialism, and twelve-note composition—is a method of musical composition first devised by Austrian composer Josef Matthias Hauer, who published his "law of the twelve tones" in 1919. In 1923, Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) developed his own, better-known version of 12-tone technique, which became associated with the "Second Viennese School" composers, who were the primary users of the technique in the first decades of its existence. The technique is a means of ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music while preventing the emphasis of any one note through the use of tone rows, orderings of the 12 pitch classes. All 12 notes are thus given more or less equal importance, and the music avoids being in a key. Over time, the technique increased greatly in popularity and eventually became widely influential on 20th-century composers. Many important composers who had originally not subscribed to or actively opposed the technique, such as Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky, eventually adopted it in their music.

Permutation (music)

In music, a permutation (order) of a set is any ordering of the elements of that set. A specific arrangement of a set of discrete entities, or parameters, such as pitch, dynamics, or timbre. Different permutations may be related by transformation, through the application of zero or more operations, such as transposition, inversion, retrogradation, circular permutation, or multiplicative operations. These may produce reorderings of the members of the set, or may simply map the set onto itself.

Subject (music)

In music, a subject is the material, usually a recognizable melody, upon which part or all of a composition is based. In forms other than the fugue, this may be known as the theme.

Josef Matthias Hauer

Josef Matthias Hauer was an Austrian composer and music theorist. He is best known for developing, independent of and a year or two before Arnold Schoenberg, a method for composing with all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Hauer was also an important early theorist of twelve-tone music and composition.

Expressionist music

The term expressionism "was probably first applied to music in 1918, especially to Schoenberg", because like the painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) he avoided "traditional forms of beauty" to convey powerful feelings in his music. Theodor Adorno interprets the expressionist movement in music as seeking to "eliminate all of traditional music's conventional elements, everything formulaically rigid". This he sees as analogous "to the literary ideal of the 'scream' ". As well Adorno sees expressionist music, as seeking "the truthfulness of subjective feeling without illusions, disguises or euphemisms". Adorno also describes it as concerned with the unconscious, and states that "the depiction of fear lies at the centre" of expressionist music, with dissonance predominating, so that the "harmonious, affirmative element of art is banished". Expressionist music would “thus reject the depictive, sensual qualities that had come to be associated with impressionist music. It would endeavor instead to realize its own purely musical nature—in part by disregarding compositional conventions that placed 'outer' restrictions on the expression of 'inner' visions".

David Benjamin Lewin was an American music theorist, music critic and composer. Called "the most original and far-ranging theorist of his generation", he did his most influential theoretical work on the development of transformational theory, which involves the application of mathematical group theory to music.

Drei Klavierstücke (Schoenberg)

Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11 is a set of pieces for solo piano written by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg in 1909. They represent an early example of atonality in the composer’s work.

Post-tonal music theory is the set of theories put forward to describe music written outside of, or 'after', the tonal system of the common practice period. It revolves around the idea of 'emancipating dissonance', that is, freeing the structure of music from the familiar harmonic patterns that are derived from natural overtones. As music becomes more complex, dissonance becomes indistinguishable from consonance.

Juan Carlos Paz

Juan Carlos Paz was an Argentine composer and music theorist.

Wind Quintet (Schoenberg)

The Wind Quintet, Op. 26, is a chamber-music composition by Arnold Schoenberg, composed in 1923–24. It is one of the earliest of Schoenberg's compositions to use twelve-tone technique.

<i>Style and Idea</i>

Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg is the name for a published collection of essays, articles and sketches by Arnold Schoenberg, that has appeared in various forms.

Leonard David Stein was a musicologist, pianist, conductor, university teacher, and influential in promoting contemporary music on the American West Coast. He was for years Arnold Schoenberg's assistant, music director of the Schoenberg Institute at USC, and among the foremost authorities on Schoenberg's music. He was also an influential teacher in the lives of many younger composers, such as the influential minimalist La Monte Young.

Movements for Piano and Orchestra is a composition for piano and orchestra by Igor Stravinsky, consisting of five short movements altogether lasting around nine minutes. It was composed during his serial period.

Neue Musik is the collective term for a wealth of different currents in composed Western art music from around 1910 to the present. Its focus is on compositions of 20th century music. It is characterised in particular by – sometimes radical – expansions of tonal, harmonic, melodic and rhythmic means and forms. It is characterised by the search for new sounds, new forms or new combinations of old styles, which is partly a continuation of existing traditions, partly a deliberate break with tradition and appears either as progress or as renewal.


  1. 1 2 3 Haimo, Ethan. 1990. Schoenberg's Serial Odyssey: The Evolution of his Twelve-Tone Method, 1914–1928, p.73n8. Oxford [England] : Clarendon Press ; New York : Oxford University Press ISBN   0-19-315260-6.
  2. Arnold Schoenberg, "Bach, 1950", in Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, edited by Leonard Stein, with translations by Leo Black, 393–97 (London: Faber and Faber, 1975): p. 397. Cited by Haimo (1990, [ page needed ]).
  3. Arnold Schoenberg, "Composition with Twelve Tones (2), c. 1948", in Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, edited by Leonard Stein, with translations by Leo Black, 245–49 (London: Faber and Faber, 1975): p. 248. Cited by Haimo (1990, [ page needed ]).

Further reading