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VARIATIONS ON “MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB”

From The Goldberg Variations Study Guide by Ryan D. Neaveill

There are a couple of different ways to compose variations. One way is to base the variations on the same melody (or the theme), changing and embellishing the melody for each variation. One way to do this is by the use of nonharmonic tones. Some examples of nonharmonic tones include:

  • Passing tone
  • Neighbor tone
  • Escape tone
  • Anticipation
  • Appogiatura

Below are examples of each of these. The nonharmonic tones are in red:

Since nonharmonic tones are so common, composers often abbreviate certain melodic ideas with a sort of notational shorthand, using various symbols to represent ornamentation. In the Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (Little Clavier Book for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach), J.S. Bach prepared a table of ornamentation to show how the various ornaments should be played. Below are some of the examples from this book. The ornamentation is notated on the top staff with the way each should be played written out on the bottom staff. Notice how all these ornaments are made up entirely of passing tones and neighbor tones.

To see how nonharmonic tones can be used in a composition, we will examine the simple tune “Mary Had a Little Lamb” which is displayed below.


Next we will examine the same melody which has been altered by the use of nonharmonic tones. Below is the same tune, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which has been altered by the addition of nonharmonic tones.


To make this variation more interesting, the underlying harmony could be changed to give the piece more variety. Below is the variation on “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with different harmony.


To make this variation even more interesting, nonharmonic tones can be added to the underlying parts as well. Below is the next step in the variation on “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It uses nonharmonic tones in the melody, the bass line, and the tenor line.


Finally, let’s add some ornamentation to the variation.


Another way to compose variations is to base the variations on the same bass line or harmonic structure but using different melodic content each time (also called a chaconne or passacaglia). This is the technique which is used in the Goldberg Variations by J.S Bach.

If we reduced the preceding variation on “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to a simple harmonic structure, it would look something like this:


Now we will examine what might be composed using the harmonic structure from the variation on “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The chords are all the same, but completely new melodic ideas have taken shape.


Now let’s see how well the original melody of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” fits with the new variation.


Copyright © 1994 by Ryan D. Neaveill. Variations on “Mary Had a Little Lamb" was written by Ryan D. Neaveill as part of The Goldberg Variations Study Guide 1.0 — an online exploration of The Goldberg Variations by J. S. Bach.