Key Themes


Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes

CHAPTER AIM: 1) Tunes vs Themes?          


Whole Movement  


In this chapter we’re going to examine more closely the main theme of our piece, the famous Ode to Joy melody, which must be one of the most famous tunes ever written.

Now already, in that single last sentence, I’ve used three words to describe the same thing: ‘tune‘ ‘melody‘ and ‘theme‘. This chapter, we’re going to listen to that melody in a number of different guises, to disentangle this issue and understand why classical music speaks of ‘themes’ rather than ‘tunes’ to describe its melodies.

Here it that theme/melody/tune:

Ode to Joy Theme  

And here’s the opening of this theme in musical notation.



Theme or Melody?

Ode to Joy Theme  


Well, as this clips stands, we can call this a tune, plain and simple. It’s a memorable melody, you can whistle it: it’s a tune.

However, during the course of this movement, this tune is pressed into service in many many different ways. It is basic material, part of the brickwork from which the rest of the piece will be constructed. Beethoven doesn’t just require a tune we can hum (although that box is definitely ticked here). Rather he needs a melody which he can re-interpret in a number of different ways. Hence a ‘theme’.

And so we call it a ‘theme’ to reflect its significance to the overall piece. And don’t think a theme needs to be complicated. Think back to how many different way Mozart uses four simple notes as a theme ( Mozart 3).


Let’s look at few examples of how this Ode to Joy theme is handled by Beethoven.

Firstly we hear the bare-bones theme sung by the baritone soloist:

1.00-1.25  Baritone   


It is still very much the same melody. Although the woodwind offer flourishes of detail, the main lines are drawn by the melody, sung by the soloist and backed up by plucked lower strings sticking to the melody’s contours. So this is our plain unadulterated theme.


And here it is a little later, under more development by singers and orchestra:

1.44-2.10  Developed   

Now the tune has clearly undergone some kind of transformation. If you listen closely, the altos (the only female voices at the start as the sopranos only enter at 0.07 above) still carry the tune. But the tenors and basses are adventuring further afield, morphing the melody into something a little different.

The overall effect is that the music has moved on. Still basically the Ode to Joy theme, but now with more harmonic ornamentation. This is more than a tune, this is something that is being reused and transformed in the process.


2.25-2.51  Further developed   

Detail from Klimt's Beethoven frieze

Detail from Klimt’s Beethoven frieze


And now we really hear the theme under much more fluid interpretation. None of the soloists – indeed none of the instruments – play the original theme as it was. The music moves us forward, as the potential complexities of the theme are explored.

Describing music like this in terms of ‘tunes’ is going to constrain our ability to see the melodic development and invention going on. If you are fresh to classical music, this incessant development of material can take a little getting used to.

That’s not a problem, quite the reverse it’s part of the fun! What may at first seem like complexity is actually opportunity, and Beethoven takes full advantage.



Same Theme, Different Guises 

Do you remember this, from our marching band section:

4.10-4.17  Marching Band   

Again we recognise the theme, but can hear it is different. It appears more jaunty.

In fact almost everything the tenor sings is different from our original Ode to Joy theme. But with the orchestra playing a new syncopated version of Ode to Joy, we immediately and instinctively bind the tenors words with our original theme.


Here’s another example, from much later, near the end of the piece.

10.58-11.05  Fugue   

This time we have the theme up high with the sopranos. But it is overlaid (lower in the altos) by a totally different theme.

If we play the clip a little longer, we can hear our theme bouncing all over the choir:

10.58-12.19  Choral fugue section   

  • 0.01     Sopranos (with flutes/oboes)
  • 0.09     Bass (a little harder to distinguish)
  • 0.18     Tenors (with brass support you can’t miss the theme!)
  • 0.27     Altos (lower than Sopranos, a little harder to hear).

This material is in fact being worked into a fugue, something we’ll come to later on this course (  Beethoven 6).

So yes, our Ode to Joy melody is a great tune. But that is just the starting point of a long musical journey Beethoven takes us on. Classical music does tunes, of course, but it does so much more.

Understanding the melodic fluidity and density of music like this is crucial to appreciating it. I mean, in what other art-form can such complexity emerge so harmoniously? It’s all part of the pleasure of exploring classical music.


Next chapter, we will turn our thoughts once more to Harmony…




It’s a big piece, this movement. Don’t worry about taking it all in in one go for the moment: by the end of these six chapters you’ll have a far clearer view of the piece’s architecture. Meantime, here are a couple of versions of the entire finale.