Thematic Material and the Handling Thereof

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It seems to me that in general on this forum, beginners and amateurs alike struggle with this very basic and important principle of music, causing such criticisms such as: incoherence, over-repetition, direction, purpose, and stability/solidity. Those who evaluate the pieces often leave it at that, further sometimes describing the definition of these problems, and offering “bandage”-like fixes to them, if the reviewer is at the top of their game. This leaves the composer rather confused a lot of the time, failing to comprehend in most cases the magnitude of their problem, often rooting in the thematic material.

My apologies to those who are reading this for further knowledge, but I will address it as such to those who know possibly the least, to ensure an all-encompassing assessment. First, we must start at the beginning: what is a theme? You can read many-a-dictionary and music textbook to find the answer, but let me simplify it for you; a theme is a musical phrase or idea, that the listener can discern as [one of] the central points of your piece. This means, in essence, it is something that your piece is built off of, and hopefully the listener can walk away remembering. Writing a theme is something almost beyond explanation, it requires minimal knowledge, but for the sake of specificity, I will attempt help those who need just that in this area. Going about writing a theme is rather difficult, and rather simple. You need 3 things: a musical background, (object of portrayal for music past classical era), and inspiration. Quite honestly, reading an essay about writing themes is going to help you considerably less than if you simply listened to various works over the last few centuries, not to discredit myself, but in integrity I tell you this. I recommend: Any of the Beethoven symphonies, a sonata of any kind (I would stick with 1900 and below for easier purposes of distinguishing a theme, they become blurred to the untrained ear if you go past that sometimes), quite honestly anything written from about 1770-1870. Here is why: back in that time period, everything was based off of form. Look for the “central point” of these pieces. Much more commonly Sonata-Allegro form and Rondo form. The former, and more common of the two is what we will utilize for learning purposes in this article because of its ease of navigation and straightforwardness, it is quite a tool to help one especially with the matter at hand (thematic material in case you forgot) . Sonata-Allegro form proceeds thus:

Theme I – Theme II – Development – Recapitulation (repetition of themes) (Theme I and Theme II are often referred to as the "exposition")

Quite honestly, an article could be written on this form in itself, as it involves rather specific methods of composition (i.e. the incorporation of the tonic and dominant in the handling of thematic material), but that is really for another time, and another lecture. If you refer to a Beethoven or Mozart, or a composer in the time period I mentioned (remember that’s very rough), I can almost guarantee you will find that format, if not with altered syntax. Everybody knows the Beethoven’s 5th theme, or the immortal 9th Symphony, or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik: these are all themes, a central point that the piece is based off of and a discerning point for the listener. Now, most composers have no trouble writing a theme, but when you do have one, what composers do not sometimes realize is that this central point is not merely a point in which something is built around, it is more of a pivot. Pardon my analogies, let me be more clear: a lot of beginning composers tend to write a theme, and sort of just…either A, present it and never return, sort of defeating the purpose, or B, repeating it over and over, the slightly more crafty ones differently. The latter is a very common beginning compositional technique which is not entirely useless, it teaches you modification, which is a good thing, but again I digress. The theme must also have a “shape” if you will; reach a high point, or low point. It can have an arc shape, often found in melodic themes, where a crescendo of sorts is followed by a high note of the theme, etc. and that is my final word on the writing of a theme. You’ll find that abstract thinking is quite helpful like this (thinking of the theme as a picture or shape, etc.) Moving on, if we were to use the Sonata-Allegro form once again as a model, most all composers would agree the most important section is the development. The first part is merely a presentation of musical ideas, the development is taking those ideas, and tearing them to shreds, putting them back together, re-arranging them, building upon them, building from them, everything. If you thought of a theme as a car with a destination, your objective is to take apart the car and rebuild it in as many different ways possible before you reach your destination. Allow me to give you some more specific examples. This is the theme taken from Beethoven Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10 No. 1, (measures 1-8):


This is only the main theme, get acquainted with this so we can look at what he does with it. This is denoted as Theme I, in Sonata-Allegro form, don’t worry about Theme II for right now. Upon many examples, I chose this one example as a common and good fit example of variation and this “breaking apart” of the theme: Beethoven took the main theme and cut it in half, then he creatively did other things with it.

As you can see, if nothing else for now than visual comparison, they are indeed similar. Here he keeps the rhythm the same, and uses a technique called stretto:


a very simple developmental technique in which variation is found, simply by cutting the thematic material in half, or the beat in half, such as the example above. It is often paired with harmonic variation (changing up the actual notes to form different chords), specifically in this example, the harmonic variation is upward. Development is all about just changing it up: try attributing different chords, to your theme, different counterpoint (another different article…), different rhythm, same notes, different notes, same rhythm, but development is not ALL about just varying the theme “properly”, it’s about making it go somewhere. This is a little harder to explain. It would be best approached if I were to tell you what to avoid rather than what you should employ. You should beware of:

  • Jerkiness: Random leaps from variation to variation, with no transition. The development is sewn together with preparation for the next variation. Jerkiness is not ALWAYS bad if you utilize the element of surprise, or you are doing it within a phrase, but it should not be used as transitory material from developmental phrase to developmental phrase.
  • Harmonic similitude: If you don’t change the notes you play, of course…obviously it won’t sound very good. But more seriously, the piece cannot stay in one key! So often I find in pieces that no matter how much you use different notes, and even say you were to develop something perfectly, (if that’s possible), if you do not change keys at LEAST a few times, it all becomes monotonous (not literally of course) and boring. The changes become much less obvious, and destroy the point of variation. Remember what I said early about a “pivot”. You can choose to pivot the piece at a more harsh angle for further away keys, etc. (e.g. C minor to F# major, etc.), perhaps the more interesting and obvious these changes become, careful not to become to flamboyant in your changes though, as this might apply to the jerkiness I was talking about.
  • Rhythmic similitude: You can self-define this, I’m hoping. I also hope you won’t find me lethargic in presuming you will know what this is and why it’s not a good technique. But, of course, for those who are too tired to think right now (it happens to me all the time don’t worry), it is merely a lack of variation in the rhythm of a theme. This can actually be effective if you pair it with harmonic variation (the polar opposite of what I just discussed above), and is found in small doses in some pieces.

In music, one basic life principle applies to all fields and corners of music: Take nothing in excess, nothing in scarcity. In more simple words: don’t do anything too much, and not too little. Even the most awkward music has a balance, and that is the ultimate goal in fabricating and developing these themes, other than to have a sense of direction. The entire piece, like the theme, also has to have some sort of shape, it has to have something like a plot line: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, etc. (if you’ll notice, sonata form is basically that). This will also help with the “direction” of your lovably breakable vehicle down this musical road. If you have a theme, and a destination, now all you have to do is be creative and create any sort of road to there.

Music is essentially just a journey, one where you can write in your own obstacles and path and purpose. I would be dead wrong in telling you that there is a “correct” way to do it, but there certainly is a way to do it intelligently and to make your piece more musically interesting, credible, grasping, and memorable. Frankly, a book would need to be written on this matter, so I of course was to-the-point, excuse me if there is something I skimmed over too fast. I would be elated to help any readers of this with specific problems by PM, email, etc.

Happy composing! ~Nico