Unity, Variety and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

Unity, Variety and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

By Stacy Gray



This article presents four music composition techniques that can help music educators create National Core Arts Standards (NCAS)-aligned lesson plans that lead their students in analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating excerpts of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony using unity and variety as the focus.

A prominent way to create unity and variety in musical compositions and improvisations is to use a theme or motive. A motive consists of a few notes that have distinct and memorable rhythmic and/or melodic content that is introduced at the beginning of a piece. The first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony establish one of the most famous motives ever, and will be used to demonstrate techniques for creating unity and variety in a musical work.

Fig 1

A motive creates unity by being repeated throughout a musical work. Repetition alone can be monotonous, so variety is introduced to keep the piece interesting, especially in longer works. Variety is created by inserting slight variations of the motive while retaining some original characteristics of it throughout the piece. Variety must not be totally foreign but must contribute to the overall unity of the artwork. The following musical excerpts show some of the ways Beethoven utilized the first motive in his 5th Symphony to create unity and variety.


Transposition of the Motive

After introducing the motive in the first two bars of his 5th Symphony, Beethoven immediately introduces the first transposed variation of the motive (down a whole step) in the third and fourth bars. This is a common example of unity and variety. The rhythm stays the same (unity) while the pitches of the notes are transposed (variety) in the sequence.


Fig 2


The Intervals Are Changed while Rhythm Remains the Same

By changing the original order or direction of the notes, Beethoven creates new variants that produce unity and variety. In bar 14 of the following example, the 1st violin part changes the third G note from the original motive (an octave higher) to an F. In bar 15 the 2nd violin part is inverted compared to the descending original motive.

Fig 3


The Harmony Is Changed

The following excerpt illustrates how changes in harmony can be introduced to add variety while the motive stays the same or is altered melodically to fit the harmony. Starting in bar 7, Beethoven introduces variants of the motive along with four different harmonies over the span of 6 bars starting in bar 7.


Fig 4


The next example illustrates how Beethoven harmonized each individual note of a motive variant to create a fast moving succession of changing harmonies in the woodwind section that precedes the first climax of the movement.


Fig 5


The Rhythm Is Changed

In bar 15 the Viola part is rhythmically shifted with the addition of an eighth note on the first beat of the bar replacing the eighth note rest in the original motive. Also, the fourth note of the variant is a shorter inverted eighth note compared to the original motive where the last note is tied to a descending half note. Beethoven often used multiple simultaneous techniques to create unity and variety throughout his musical works.


Fig 6 


Two other common rhythmic techniques for creating unity and variety are called diminution and augmentation. Diminution involves compressing the motive into shorter note values as seen in example 1 (79th bar of 2nd movement). Motive variants originally using 8th notes have been changed to 32nd notes. In contrast, augmentation occurs when longer rhythmic values are used to express the original motive or a variant. In the 15th bar of the 3rd movement, Beethoven uses three quarter notes (example 2) instead of the three eighth notes in the original motive.


Example 1

Fig 7

Example 2

Fig 8




This article has identified some of the most common techniques used by composers and improvisers to create unity and variety (included in the NCAS). Unity and variety are among the most important criteria for evaluating the quality of music and other artworks. The evaluation of any work of art involves the recognition of as many of these relationships as possible considering that unity is the master principle of aesthetic form. Students require repeated listening and analysis opportunities to identify the elements of unity and variety.


iStockphoto.com | AleksandarGeorgiev

In addition to learning techniques that create unity and variety, it is important to understand the rationale that underlies unity and variety as there are significant psychological implications according to some of the most prominent psychologists and philo sophers throughout history. According to psychologists, music and the other fine arts are a symbolic language that can subconsciously influence thinking, feeling, and behavior. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung wrote that “aesthetics by its very nature is applied psychology.” This knowledge was attained by analyzing tens of thousands of dreams that provided knowledge of the subconscious mind and the discovery of the unity symbolism therein. These analyses shed light on the relationship between the symbolic languages of dreams and the fine arts.

Researchers have found that the structure of dreams and musical works such as classical compositions and jazz improvisations share the same form which includes:

  1. Exposition (introduction of motives)
  2. Development (unity and variation of motives)
  3. Culmination (climax)

Dreams and music that imitates dream structure have been found to be therapeutic as they compensate for disorder in the psyche through the symbolic construction of a central point (motive) through which everything is unified, or by unifying opposing elements (e.g., tension and release). The symbol of unity is the often repeated panacea stressed throughout psychological and philosophical writings that true art is supposed to imitate. Plato taught that the unity symbol was beautiful and the source of love. In her book Symbolization and Creativity, psychiatrist Susan Deri asserted that symbols of unity are required for mental wellness as they encode order into the psyche.

Such is the power of music that is based on unity, and variety that contributes to the overall unity of a musical work. It cannot be stressed enough that unity and variety are foremost criteria in the evaluation of music and all art forms.



Deri, S. K., (1984) Symbolization and Creativity, New York: International University Press, p.14

Greene, T. M. (1973) The Arts and the Art of Criticism, New York: Gordian Press, p. 130

Jung, C. G.(1974) Dreams, Princeton University Press, p.80

Jung, C. G. (1952) Mandala Symbolism, Princeton University Press, p.4

Jung, C. G. (1971) Psychological Types, Princeton University Press, p.289

Jung, C. G. (1956) Symbols of Transformation, Princeton University Press, p.325

Jung, C. G. (1966) The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature, Princeton University Press, p.80

Parker, D. H., (1926) The Analysis of Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, p.36

Plato, (1961) Philebus, Bollingen Foundation, 25a-26b

Plato, (1961) Symposium, Bollingen Foundation, 188

Schoenberg, A. (1967) Fundamentals of Musical Composition, London: Bloomsbury House, p. 8


About the author:

Aug 15 - Stacy Gray photo

Stacy Gray is a professional musician, an online teaching assistant for Berklee College of Music, and an online educational consultant specializing in NCAS professional development. He received his B.M. degree in Film Scoring from Berklee College of Music where he studied music composition with Academy Award winner Don Wilkins. As a guitarist he performed in the Emmy Award winning movie “The Temptations,” and has shared the stage with numerous recording artists including Grammy Award winner Kool & The Gang. He taught in the jazz department at the University of Pittsburgh while pursuing a M.A. degree in Musicology, and was a music therapist for St. Francis Medical Center in Pittsburgh. He continues his professional development as a member of the Berklee Film Scoring Alumni Forum, an online group that includes Academy Award and Emmy Award winning composers who discuss the latest trends and research in music composition. 

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