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An idea is the source of all artwork, and since a good idea is hard to come by, it's smart to make the most out of each. This is central to classical composition technique, and one thing students learn is to find variations by studying the music. An entire five-minute piece can be written from a single idea less than one measure long.
Variation is all about retaining some element of the original idea while other elements are altered, keeping music fresh and yet familiar. The variation does not have to be recognizable as such, though it helps, but listeners of different astuteness will notice different things anyway. The most important thing is that if you made more music out of your idea, you have avoided adding a second idea to the piece just to finish the writing. That second idea could have been a song of its own. It is fine to write music based on two different ideas, and this "theme 1 vs. theme 2" approach is widespread, but both ideas are then used as a source of variations.
Cosmetic variations are simple and don't involve manipulation of the material's structure, which is why untrained musicians often opt for this approach. One example is changing the instrumentation, such as the singer performing the melody, and then the guitarist doing it verbatim. Even extreme changes in instrumentation by all band members, while effective, are cosmetic. Progressive metal bands excel at this.
Structural variations are typically more sophisticated and involve breaking down a musical idea into its component parts, such as its harmony, rhythm, and melody. The most important of these is the melody, which can be further divided into several smaller snippets called "motifs". A motif is a short musical idea that is recognizable. A motif can be surrounded with different chords and keys, repeated at different pitches, and used as the basis for a new melody. The motif itself can also be varied, not simply repeated in different guises. This is an extensive subject to be covered in future articles.
Knowing how to write variations will not only make your music more compelling, but it can prolong your artistic life. Why waste ideas when you can mine the song for unexploited potential? How many bands sound like they're out of ideas after three albums? Lead guitar ideas can often be derived from something within the riffs, too.
Dynamic Use of Keys
A key change can be a powerful thing - or it can be largely pointless. In classical music, keys are used to define structure, add tension in either subtle or obvious ways, and for variation. These ideas appear throughout a music curriculum but are most prominently studied in Musical Form class. Each classical form, such as a fugue, sonata, or minuet, is defined in part by its key changes, and while you might not want to write an allemande, for example, the harmonic ideas within such a piece can still be applied to other genres.
Defining Structure: Writing a verse in one key and the chorus in another helps distinguish the sections from each other. The average listener won't be consciously aware of it, but it still affects them. Their sense of forward motion and the "You Are Here" feeling are stronger. Without key changes, a song may feel like it meanders. For two alternating sections of music, the most basic approach is derived from chord progressions and involves changing from I to V. In other words, if the verse is in A major (I), write the chorus in E major (V), so that when the verse (I) reappears, a V-I motion occurs. This is discussed in more detail in another article, "Structural Chord Progressions".
Adding Tension: When a song remains in one key throughout, it goes nowhere harmonically. By contrast, a song with key changes feels more dynamic. The goal of chord progressions is to return to the home chord (I), which is why all progressions end with it. The goal of key changes is that, once left, the home key is a destination-in-waiting, and the desire for the original key to return adds tension. This is why it is used structurally, too. Another option is to surprise the listener with a more audible/noticeable key change. They may not understand what happened, but the jarring or colorful change adds drama. This is also discussed in "Structural Chord Progressions".