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In music, basic technique consisting of changing the music melodically, harmonically, or contrapuntally. The simplest variation type is the variation set, in which two or more sections are based on the same musical material, which is treated with different variational techniques in each section. The practice, originally involving use of a repeated bass line (basso ostinato, or ground bass), began in early 16th-century dance music in Italy and Spain. Ground-bass forms include the chaconne and passacaglia, both of which usually employ a brief bass line repeated many times. In the 17th century, organ and harpsichord variations became a standard form in Germany. Keyboard variations in the 19th century often employed popular tunes or opera melodies; variation form was also commonly used in symphonies, quartets, and sonatas. It declined in importance after the classical era but has never ceased to be employed by composers. The music of certain non-Western cultures also uses variational techniques. The art music of southern India is built on the concept of a string of pieces, each a variation on a given theme. A somewhat different concept of multilevel variation is found in the gamelan (orchestra) music of Indonesia. The variations are not consecutive but are simultaneous, a technique called heterophony.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on variation, visit Britannica.com.