I recently collaborated with several of my colleagues on a piece for a small brass ensemble that was performed for an even at my university. The piece that we worked on was in a musical form called theme & variation. What is a theme & variation? I'm glad you asked! For an official definition, let's ask our good friends Merriam & Webster.
If you'd instead rather me explain it, it's basically a form of music where a melodic theme is stated, and then instead of developing the piece off of the theme, or melody, that has been created, the composer takes that one melodic idea and restates it in different ways in order to create different moods, feelings, textures, etc. with a piece. Let me give a couple of examples. One of the more popular piano variations would be Beethoven's Variations. Beethoven took the melody from "God Save The King", or I guess My Country 'Tis of Thee depending on where you're from, and he wrote seven different variations on the melody. Take a listen!
The other example I would give is actually my favorite variations: Aaron Copland's Piano Variations. I actually did a research project on this piece my sophomore year in my Composition seminar. Adam Tendler did a punk job on his performance of the Copland's piano variations. Check it out.
Now that we have a good general idea on the concept of what a theme & variation is, let's talk about something that isn't technically a T&R, but I like to think it is a little bit like one. We're going to talk about the soundtrack to one of my favorite video games: BANJO-KAZOOIE!
Banjo-Kazooie was a game that came out for Nintendo 64 back in 1998. The game is about Banjo (Bear) and Kazooie (Bird). Banjo's sister, Tootie, is kidnapped by the evil witch, Gruntilda, and you have to save her by running around different worlds and collecting things like music notes, Jigsaw Pieces (AKA Jiggies), and there's a magic shaman who turns you into strange things. BEHOLD THE MIGHTY MUMBO JUMBO.
Okay, let's move on to the important part of what this is about -- the music. The soundtrack to Banjo-Kazooie was written by one of my favorite composers, Grant Kirkhope. Grant was hired as the studio composer for Rare LTD. in 1995, and this was one of the projects he worked on with them. Every single different world has its own theme, but if you look at it from how the progression of the melody flows, you could almost argue that each world's melody is actually a variation on the main theme of the game.
Let's take a look.
I wrote out the main theme of the video game, and there's an audio recording over by it as well. Grant, wonderful job, and I apologize if I butchered the notation or misheard a note. My Theory Lab skills only go so far. One of the main parts of the BK main theme you'll notice is the use of repeated 16th note figures. The harmonic progression pushes in an abnormal way. In the key of C Major, I see the opening chord structure as C-Ab7-C-Ab7-C7 (I-bVI7-I-bVI-I-V7/IV), which modulates us into the F chord in measure 9. The coolest thing about this entire song to me is that overall, the song uses a standard I-IV-V-I sort of chord structure, but the chords used in between to help progress to the structure make the tune unique.
So take what we've talked about with theme & variation style songs and apply it to right now. One of the worlds in Banjo-Kazooie is Click-Clock Wood. Take a look at the score and/or listen to the song, and you'll kind of see what I mean. Grant didn't use the same 16th note figures in the melody for CCW as he did with the main theme; it's slightly varied with a dotted 16th note/32nd note swing rhythm. When the melody transitions into the IV chord in measure 5, the melody takes a different spin to further set it apart from the main theme. All in all, is Banjo-Kazooie's soundtrack technically a theme & variation? No, probably not, but the concept is somewhat similar, and it's one of my favorite soundtracks to a video game to be written. Plus, it's just a goofy/fun game that never gets old and nostalgia and childhood and yadda yadda.