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Thematic Transformation: Definition & Methods

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

As a composer, themes can be a big part of your music. In this lesson, we'll see how subtly changing those themes can change the impact of your composition.

Thematic Transformation

Have you ever seen the movie Star Wars? Every important character in Star Wars gets their own musical theme, created by legendary composer John Williams. You may be familiar with the foreboding imperial march, or the radiant overture that indicates the will of the Force.

A recurring musical theme like this, which is directly tied to a person, place, object, or idea, is known as a leitmotif. While John Williams may have created some of the most memorable leitmotifs in cinematic music, he certainly didn't invent the idea itself. Leitmotifs have a long history in Western music, and were particularly associated with the operas of Richard Wagner.

While many people are familiar with the basic concept of a leitmotif, many of us get one thing wrong about it. We assume that leitmotifs aren't meant to change. Well, just because somebody has a theme, doesn't mean that theme is completely static. In fact, composers often vary the theme slightly in order to show us what's happening in that character's mind, or to set up a change in an important idea, or to let us know that something big is about to happen. The technique by which composers alter leitmotif or musical theme is known as thematic transformation.

Thematic Transformation by Permutation

So, how exactly does one go about transforming a leitmotif? One basic technique is through permutation, or using the exact same musical structure in new ways. Basically, a permutation is a transformation of the leitmotif in which the intervals and lengths of notes are directly related to the original composition, but have been altered in other ways. There are three main kinds of permutations.

First is transposition, the act of changing all the notes by the same ratio. For example, you could move all of the notes of the leitmotif up three semitones, or up four notes in that scale, or by a pitch interval of two. The point is that every note is changed in the same way, so the relationship between them is the same. The basic melody is still there, but it sounds different. Since transposition generally places the leitmotif in a new key, we can also call this process modulation (transformation through key change).

These two themes are structured the same, but one is a few semitones higher
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The second kind of permutation is inversion, which is basically playing the melody upside down. For example, imagine if the leitmotif contains the notes C, E, and G, in that order. From C to E is rise of a third, and from E to G is also a rise of a third. If we inverted that, we'd start on C and then descend a third to A, and then descend another third to F. Imagine placing the leitmotif on a flat mirror and reading the reflection. That's inversion.

These melodies look similar, but the structure of one is inverted
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If those permutations don't work for you, consider transformation through retrograde. Again imagine that very unoriginal leitmotif of C, E, G (in that order). A retrograde of that melody would be G, E, C. You play it backwards. If you want to musically indicate that an idea is crashing in on itself or reversing, this is a good thematic transformation to use.

Transformation through retrograde
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Adjusting the Notes, but not the Pitches

Permutations are transformations created by adjusting the pitches of the leitmotif, while still keeping them bound in some way by the structure of the original melody. However, there are thematic transformations that keep the pitches the same, while finding other ways to restructure the leitmotif.

One basic technique is augmentation, which entails stretching out the length of the notes. If the original leitmotif included the notes C, E, and G played as quarter notes, an augmentation of that would be to play C, E, and G as half notes. It's the same melody, with the same notes, but now each note is longer.

The inverse technique to augmentation is diminution, or a shortening of the notes. In this case, we'd play C, E, and G as eighth notes, making them shorter than the original quarter notes. While augmentation makes the leitmotif feel drawn out and can be used to hide it within other melodies and harmonies, diminution often makes the leitmotif feel rushed, pressured, stressed, or urgent.

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