As a classically trained jazz piano player, I cherish the countless pieces of music that have been written by the classical composers of old. Contrary to my expectations, they turned out to be an incredibly rich source of inspiration.
Classical pieces are filled with a cornucopia of musical themes that are readily available to be plucked and molded into your own jazz solos.
Building a strong musical vocabulary is a cornerstone of your skills as a jazz soloist. In order to improvise fluently, you need a collection of musical themes readily available in your subconscious memory.
What is equally important, if not more so, is the ability to take a
musical theme and experiment with it.
Learn to take any piece of musical vocabulary and work with it: Mold it, shape it, alter it, break it apart and reassemble it. Learn to turn it into a million shapes and forms on the spot. This is what it means to improvise.
To my delight, classical music can teach us valuable lessons on the subject of building variations on musical themes.
Today, we will examine different ways in which W.A. Mozart develops variations on a simple melody.
Mozart was a jazz pianist at heart
image[mozart_portrait, portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart]
W.A. Mozart (1756-91) was described as an extraordinarily creative personality. He loved fancy parties, he played billiards, he kept various pets, including songbirds, and he had a reputation for playing pranks on his closest friends and coworkers.
Many people falsely believe that he composed his works entirely in his head and that he simply shook a perfect piece or even an entire symphony out of his sleeve.
This myth originated because hardly any of his sketches and drafts survived as his wife sought to destroy them after his death. It was later widely popularized in a forged letter “by Mozart” fabricated by a leading German music magazine.
In reality, Mozart was an experimenter. He worked nights and spent countless hours improvising with musical themes at the “clavier”, until he had a version that did justice to his high standard of perfection.
Yes, he spent his time improvising!
Mozart was a master at improvising over musical themes. In fact, he
gave entire concerts in which he took popular pieces of his time and
improvised on them for hours.
Isn’t this exactly what a jazz pianist does?
Mozart was way ahead of his time here. He used original sheet music to start with, as lead sheet notation was not yet invented, and the “popular pieces” he improvised on were the 18th century equivalent of the standards in today’s Real Book.
This shows that we can learn a great deal about improvisation from Mozart, and luckily, he committed some of his improvisations to paper in the form of his famous variations.
Let’s look at an example and see if we can identify some ways in which he turns a single theme into an entire bouquet of interesting music, without ever repeating himself.
Twinkle, twinkle little star
Mozart's collection of variations on the French folk song "Ah vous dirai-je Maman" (A.k.a. Twinkle, twinkle little star) is perhaps one of the greatest examples of his creative capabilities.
In 12 variations he recycles the simple melody of the well known nursery rhyme and adapts them into a novel and yet similar piece each time, ranging from the playful to the epic.
These are 12 variations. Each one is unique. A beautiful work, no doubt. What I would give to hear the man on stage!
Remember that Mozart allegedly came up with variations of equal quality on the spot. Such talent and expertise is remarkable, but not inconceivable, when you think about it.
Like any improviser, Mozart does not come up with variations
out of thin air, but he follows certain principles that can be learned
This is where it gets interesting.
It turns out there are a number of ways in which one can create a variation on a theme, and Mozart was an expert in applying all of them.
Let's take a closer look at some of Mozart's variations, and see if we can derive some specific lessons that we can apply to improve our own improvisation.
In preparation: Be clear bout the central musical theme
Let's define what we are working with today.
Mozart starts his variations with the main theme of "Twinkle, twinkle little star". This is analogous to playing the "head" of your standard in your own solo performance.
The idea is to capture people's attention ("Hey! I know this song!") and deliver the context upon which the entire piece is based.
It is crucial that you internalize the main
theme of any standard you play. This will be the raw material from
which you can create a virtually endless stream of improvised music.
You need to know the central theme inside and out. If I wake you up at 3 am in the night you need to be able to sing it to me instantly. This is how comfortable you should be with the central theme.
Let's look at the theme of "Twinkle, twinkle little star", then.
As we go through the following examples, I will first play Mozart's version and then come up with my own version in the language of jazz.
Here is Mozart's version of the theme:
And here is my jazz version:
Take some time to get familiar with the theme. Be sure to understand the notes, rhythm and harmony from which the theme is built.
I will now point out 3 methods in which Mozart creates variations on this theme, and I will try to use the same techniques to come up with variations in my solo.
Method 1: melodic variation
In Variation No. I, Mozart changes the melody of the tune. He replaces the simple melody with a more elaborate one based on scales.
I did the same in my jazz version. Instead of the simple melody, I came up with a more sophisticated one. Note that the left-hand accompaniment remains the same:
Method 2: rhythmic variation
In Variation No. V, Mozart uses the very same melody notes from the original theme, but he uses a novel rhythmic pattern.
In my version, I change the rhythm in the first half of the theme while keeping the original melody notes. In the second half, I also change the melody, so technically this is a combination of rhythmic and melodic variation:
Method 3: harmonic variation
This is probably the trickiest of all ways to come up with variations, but if done well the effect will be impressive.
Nursery rhymes usually have a rather simple harmony that can get old fast. To really spice up your solo, it is worth experimenting with different alternative harmonies that you could use.
In Variation No. VII, Mozart replaces the simple chords in the original theme with an entirely new harmonic line in the second part.
In my jazz version, I add some extra chords, too to build a chromatic base line. I also slightly alter the melody again, but I make sure that it is still reminiscent of the original:
Practice building variations
We have seen that there are several ways of constructing variations on a theme.
We discussed examples of melodic variation, rhythmic variation and
harmonic variation. If you learn to use these 3 tricks or any
combination of them in your own solos, you will go a long way!
Building variations on a theme is the essence of improvisation. Mozart has figured out how to do this, and so have the great masters of jazz.
Listen to any grandmaster (e.g. Thelonious Monk) and you will find that their improvised solos are most often based on simple musical themes which they masterfully bend into different shapes and forms.
This is a skill that can be practiced and developed!
One way you can get started is to experiment with the musical vocabulary you find in our lick collection here on the LickStack. Each lick provides a musical theme that is ready for you to use.
Pick any lick and try to come up with a few melodic variations, rhythmic variations, harmonic variations or any combination of the three.
Also make sure to record yourself and upload your novel variations back onto the LickStack here, so that others may continue where you left off.
Practice creating variations every day, and sooner than you can say "Amadeus", you will improvise like Mozart!