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Theme-and-Variations Soundtrack

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A soundtrack trope. Basically, the application/adaptation of the musical form Theme and Variations to a work's soundtrack. That is, the work has a main theme, with much of the soundtrack consisting of different arrangements to fit the mood or situation. For example, instead of having bespoke songs for action set pieces or emotional moments, the composer may opt to switch out the instruments and/or play with the tempo, giving us the main theme but played with fast, bombastic electric guitar or slow, somber grand piano. Alternatively, this can manifest as "Recurring Riff, But More", where it is less an entire song as it is a specific musical snippet that appears all over the soundtrack.

This trope is a frequent occurrence in video games, as well as Western animated productions (thanks to composers during The Golden Age of Animation having heavy classical and jazz influence).

See also Variable Mix, where a video game automatically switches between different arrangements of a song depending on the current game state or a player's actions.


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  • Baccano!'s soundtrack has many pieces with the same melody as the main theme (note, not the same as the OP), but at different tempos and with different sets of instruments.
  • Elfen Lied: Arrangements of "Lilium" (the opening credit theme) are used frequently as Background Music, covering scenes with wide arrays of emotions such as sadness, nostalgia, serenity, suspense, and murder.
  • Gundam:
  • SSSS.DYNɅZENON: barring the OP and ED, as well as anything originating from the predecessor series, all tracks are some variation of the tracks "All This Time" and "Dyna March."
  • Stratos 4: A number of tracks, including one labeled "Mikaze's Theme" (for the lead main character), that all share a tune. At the last episode, this is revealed to be the tune of the second ending theme (which is used for the ends of whole seasons).
  • The Voltron series used the theme motif (A C# D E) quite a bit in its soundtrack.

    Asian Animation 
  • Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: It's mostly obvious in the first season, where the theme music's melody is worked into a number of the recurring synth tunes within the show itself.

    Films — Animation 
  • 5 Centimeters per Second: Most of the music in the film is an arranged version of either the piano theme from the trailer, or of "One More Time, One More Chance"
  • Corpse Bride uses parts of the melody introduced in the first 10 seconds of the movie for everything, especially the more sentimental moments.
  • Howl's Moving Castle features perhaps three different themes, and the vast majority of the soundtrack is based on only one of them.
  • The How to Train Your Dragon movies use several themes throughout their soundtracks, most commonly the one heard in "Forbidden Friendship" and "Test Drive".
  • In Turning Red, the score is mostly comprised of various leitmotifs for different characters. Mei's theme in particular, first introduced in "Turning Red'' is used throughout along with the panda theme and Ming's theme.
  • Up: The film's soundtrack is comprised of various leitmotifs for different characters. Ellie's theme in particular, first introduced in Married Life, is used to indicate moods melancholic and adventurous, such as when Carl reminisces over Ellie or musters the willpower to go on a new adventure.
  • Voices of a Distant Star: In the soundtrack notes, Tenmon remarks that he essentially created the soundtrack by writing a "Theme A" and "Theme B", and then made variations on those two themes to provide appropriate Background Music for every scene.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The soundtrack of The Last Airbender film was mostly made of variations of this theme.
  • In Titanic (1997), most tracks that don't play during the iceberg collision or the sinking are mostly variations on either the "Southampton" Theme or the Love Theme.
  • In the German adventure movie F. P. 1 antwortet nicht (1932), composer Allan Gray (born Josef Zmigrod) makes good use of the main theme. In the course of the film you get to hear it as the song "Flieger, grüß' mir die Sonne" (Aviator, greet the sun for me) sung by the hero (Hans Albers in German, Conrad Veidt in the simultaneously produced English version, Flying Platform 1 Does Not Answer, and Charles Boyer in the French), as a march, as a foxtrot, a waltz, and in various pieces of incidental music. The song became a hit again in the 1980s in a cover version by the band Extrabreit.
  • Inception has its score built around orchestral variations on Edith Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien".
  • The recurring themes of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids are "Strange Neighbors" and the main title, this last being a riff on Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse".
  • You Never Dreamed bases its short score on "The Last Poem".
  • The Fountain's score uses several variations of "Death is the Road to Awe."
  • Paul McCartney's soundtrack to the 1966 film The Family Way largely consists of variations on the main theme. It is lovely, though, to the extent that McCartney had it played as he walked down the aisle (the second time).
  • The scores of most James Bond films will be variations of the film's own theme song, the classic James Bond 007 theme, or a combination of the two. (The film themes themselves often feature motifs from the series theme as well.) They're generally subtle, until the time comes for a Theme Music Power-Up.
  • The Galaxy Quest soundtrack was largely based on the titular Show Within a Show's theme.
  • Once The Giver starts playing the piano, that tune dominates the score.
  • Eragon: Patrick Doyle's score hinges on one main theme. Any other melodies are really subtle and one-offs.
  • Gleahan and the Knaves of Industry: Three main themes appear throughout the movie, and boy does Samuel T Weston milk them for all they're worth!
  • Saw: Aside from every film after the first one featuring a remix of said film's "Hello Zepp" as a climactic Leitmotif, much of the soundtrack across installments (especially in tense scenes) involves the constant recycling of compositions and specific sounds to create new music.
  • Our Man Flint makes excellent reuse of Jerry Goldsmith's theme in modes from Samba to Go-Go, and everything in between.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the Doctor Who revival, every modern incarnation of the Doctor (from Nine to Thirteen) is granted their own theme, along with their companions, and many of the recurring villains. During the Eleventh Doctor's era, this approach to the series' soundtrack was taken one step further. From Series 5 to Series 7, every single episode contained some sort of variation of the Eleventh Doctor's primary theme, "I Am The Doctor", or his secondary theme, "The Mad Man With A Box", that was tweaked a bit and remixed to fit the tone and setting of the episode (from the dusty plains of the Old West to the high seas in the Age of Sail).
  • Good Eats does this about three times or more per episode with the theme song.
  • The theme song to Jeeves and Wooster is jazzy and upbeat. The episodes manage to make the tune span everything from sentimental to sad to sinister.
  • Great British Menu. All the music is based on the main theme, but there are something like 300 versions.
  • The incidental music in Series 1 of One Foot in the Grave is all based on the theme tune; it comes across as Early-Installment Weirdness when compared to the more diverse and inventive scores used later.
  • Most of Shoestring's Background Music consists of either variations on the theme tune or stock Background Music that can be heard in other shows.

  • Identity V (from the same producer as Tsukista) does this not only with the theme songs from each episode, but also with some of the music from the game that is the source material. The actually happy ending of episode 1 even ends with a positive key shift of the game's Dies Irae-based theme.
  • Tsukiuta plays tend to have a slow piano version of the episode's theme song at emotional moments, in addition to other uses of the same melody throughout the play. The eighth play, Tsukino Empire has many examples.
  • Wicked does this with the chord progression and parts of the melody of "No One Mourns the Wicked", particularly the Overture. This theme is actually based on a piece from the rock opera The Survival of St. Joan, in which Stephen Schwartz was musical director.

    Video Games 
  • The Halo series:
    • Halo: Combat Evolved: The classic series theme, Enough Dead Heroes, Shadows, etc.
    • Halo 2: The Last Spartan, the Arbiter's Theme, High Charity, and the Delta Halo theme.
    • Halo 3: Finish The Fight, Farthest Outpost, and numerous motifs from the previous games.
    • Halo: Reach: Lone Wolf, Remember Reach, Ghosts and Glass, etc.
  • James Bond games:
    • The entire soundtrack of GoldenEye (1997) is, fittingly, variations on the James Bond theme song.
    • The game of The World Is Not Enough does not have the classic Bond theme, but it does use variations of the eponymous theme from the film.
  • Many of the tunes in Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain, such as Logan's Theme, Carthage Mall (Action), St Cetteo Square, Belaya Vezha (Action), Taherir Palace, etc. are variations of the main title theme. The PS1 installments also have their own recurring themes.
  • In Resident Evil 2, William Birkin/G's theme appears throughout the soundtrack, including the Street, Courtyard, Front Hall, Marshalling Yard, and Extreme Battle themes.
  • Nemesis's theme in Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. "Feel The Tense" when he's nearby but offscreen, "Nemesis Theme" when you fight his first form, "Unstoppable Nemesis" during the battle where he infects you with The Virus, "Nemesis Again" for his second mutation, "Nemesis Doesn't Give Up" when you fight him in the Treatment Room, and "Nemesis's Final Metamorphosis" for the Final Boss battle.
  • Many of the Tomb Raider games do this, e.g. the original trilogy uses many variations of the title theme (generally considered Lara's theme). The third game makes frequent use of the "Meteor Impact" motif from its intro cutscene.
  • Most of the Medal of Honor games. The first few games mainly use variations of the title themes, the player characters' themes (e.g. Patterson's themes in the first game and ''Frontline), and the recurring Nazi theme, along with motifs such as "Locating Enemy Positions", "The U-Boat", "Panzer Attack", "Border Town", "Clipping Their Wings", "Sturmgeist", etc.
  • No More Heroes has its main theme, a jazzy little 1:30-ish tune. Which is remixed into a rock version, a techno version, a trance version... which isn't to say the entire OST is comprised of them, but you'd better get ready to get used to it.
  • The Journeyman Project has a new-age version of its main theme during the opening cutscenes, a muzak version in the Caldoria Heights apartments, a synth-orchestral version in the TSA, and a rock version for the Ending Theme.
  • Super Smash Bros. Brawl: Though it has a very extensive soundtrack otherwise, almost all of the original music in the game is based on the opening theme, by Nobou Uematsu. The variations include Musical Pastiches of Sabre Dance and Ravel's Bolero.
  • Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: Almost all, if not all, the soundtrack that does not originate from other games (including its predecessors) has Lifelight. Including Menu, Battlefield, Mob Smash, Results, the Mii Fighters victory theme and many others. In a 2023 video for his Youtube channel, Masahiro Sakurai commented that this was done on purpose, in order to convey different emotions depending on the current context while keeping a memorable melody.
  • The Star Wars Legends series Rogue Squadron, in addition to using many songs from the movies, uses variations of the series' own theme.
  • Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts: The soundtrack of the game is based on orchestral remixes of old melodies from the first two games.
  • Conker's Bad Fur Day: The game remixes the Windy area theme to make the Barn Boys, Bats' Tower and Uga Buga themes. It also does the same, though to a lesser extent, with the standard boss theme (which is played for Big Boiler and the Wankas), which is remixed into a rural version for the first phase of the battle against Haybot, and later modified more heavily into a military version played when Conker is eaching the coast of the Tediz island while escaping from it.
  • Donkey Kong 64: Every world (including the Hub Level) has an audio theme that is reused in different ways for its different sections.
  • Super Bomberman: was before the days of Variable Mix, but it still used the same song for every world.
  • NieR's soundtrack is predominated by "Ashes of Dreams", which has several variations on its own... and then shows up in "Dispossession" and "Yonah", both of which have their own variations. No complaints from the fandom, though. In addition, several other themes return in variant forms: "Song of the Ancients" gets a dramatic Dark Reprise for the boss fight with the Twins, "Kainé Salvation" returns as the lively "Kainé Escape", melancholy "Emil Sacrifice" becomes the Triumphant Reprise "Emil Karma", and "Shadowlord" shows up several times.
  • The SNES version of SimCity used variations of a main theme for each stage of your city's development.
  • The PS2 Spy Hunter games use various rock and techno remixes of the Peter Gunn theme.
  • Modern Warfare 2's soundtrack is composed of a number of tracks based on the original six-note riff heard at the end of the introduction.
  • Wave Race 64: In true Kazumi Totaka fashion, nearly every track uses a variation of the theme song, or at least a Recurring Riff. This even extends to other areas like the options menu and the name entry screen.
  • Descent 3's theremin-based title theme is remixed throughout the game, although there are also a few original music tracks.
  • Each landmass in Hyperdimension Neptunia has its theme remixed once for its dungeons and again for the battles within said dungeons. The title theme has also been remixed and used in cutscenes at least a few times.
  • All the pre-battle themes in Touhou Hisouten ~ Scarlet Weather Rhapsody are remixes of the same song, which is also spliced into the title theme (which itself has been a variation on the same theme for every game in the series. The Mission-Pack Sequel's title theme is also a remix of this song.
  • Most of Fallout 3's in-game musics are based on the title theme's progression. In turn these have sub-variations when wandering the wastes, visiting a town, exploring a dungeon, or engaging in battle. Fallout: New Vegas also does this, with additional variations for good and evil alignments, and the Hoover Dam battle.
  • In Metal Gear Solid, the music was mostly remixes of the Encounter theme.
  • In The Oregon Trail II the trail themes each have three variations, depending on whether your party is in good, fair, or poor health. More appropriately, the main theme is often played in trading posts and other minor stops.
  • The gameplay themes in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game are mainly based on the "Heroes in a Half-Shell" theme from the animated series.
  • Ratchet & Clank started adopting this since 2009, with A Crack in Time, All 4 One, Full Frontal Assault and Into the Nexus following the method of introducing the theme triumphantly at the Main Menu, with reprises and variations heard throughout the rest of the game.
  • Radiant Silvergun: Every song in the game uses either one or both parts of Stage 3'snote  song, Return.
  • Forza Motorsport 6's soundtrack, which is all original compositions by Kaveh Cohen rather than using licensed songs like previous games, consists mostly of arrangements of the intro theme.
  • Child of Light's main recurring themes throughout the soundtrack are "Pilgrims on a Long Journey," "Aurora's Theme," and "Magna's Heart."
  • Planescape: Torment's soundtrack is this to the logical extension, as every single piece of music in the game is a remix of its main theme using different instruments and beat.
  • Much of Fe's soundtrack is variations of the Hub Level theme, Skogen.
  • In Hollow Knight, most songs incorporate variations of the title screen, Greenpath, or White Lady motifs.
  • To the Moon has "For River", a song written In-Universe by Johnny for his wife, underpinning the vast majority of other songs.
  • Celeste's soundtrack is primarily based on the piano arpeggio and synthesizer melody of "First Steps." Likewise, the Farewell expansion heavily reuses the violin motif from "Fear of the Unknown" in addition to the main game's theme.
  • In Tyranny, has a distinct leitmotif that's either sung in a One-Woman Wail or performed by strings in many of the game's tracks. It does double duty as the theme for Kyros, the Fatebinder, and the ancient magics of the Edicts that, by the end of the game, both characters can utilize.
  • All of City Connection's stages use variations of the main melody from Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1: Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso, mainly as pastiches of rock-'n'-roll songs.
  • Most of Ori and the Blind Forest's soundtrack uses variations of the Spirit Tree's or Ori's leitmotifs. The Very Definitely Final Dungeon, Mount Horu, uses different variations of its central theme for each of the side "puzzle" rooms. In the Black Root Burrows from the Definitive Edition, which explores the previously untold backstory of Naru, the music tracks are appropriately mainly based on "Naru, Embracing the Light".
  • Ori and the Will of the Wisps, in addition to the aforementioned motifs from the first game, has a new leitmotif initially associated with the owlet Ku, but recurring throughout most of the soundtrack. Ditto the main motif of the E3 2018 trailer.
  • Part Time UFO has one recurring melody throughout most of its soundtrack. What's present in every track is a funny voice that sings a phrase about the main character.
  • Much of Fate/Grand Order's music for every story chapter revolves around one particular song, usually the map music, which is then remixed and rearranged into incidental event and battle music used for that chapter.
  • Kirby:
    • Most songs in Kirby: Planet Robobot that aren't remixes of previous themes in the series feature the Noble Haltmann, the main theme of the corporation that serves as the game's villains, as their backbone.
    • Most songs in Kirby and the Forgotten Land that aren't remixes of themes of previous games usually contain two motifs: Waddle Dee Town's theme and the theme of the first level.
  • The main theme of Five Nights at Freddy's: Security Breach is rearranged quite a few times in the game's soundtrack. A creepy music box version plays on the title screen, an upbeat synth version plays while riding elevators and a sci-fi version plays in the Fazer Blast main lobby. There's are multiple more versions, but these ones are the ones you'll hear the most.
  • Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap: The 2017 remake turned the dungeon music and boss theme into this, giving them a different variation for the mood of each dungeon (and several more unused ones in the bonus OST).

    Western Animation 
  • Bunsen Is a Beast uses nothing except variations of its theme song for its Background Music.
  • Inspector Gadget. Gadget's theme in particular is arranged in a different way in every episode, and is a Recurring Riff in most of the other tracks as well. Nearly every track on the show's soundtrack contains at least a small bit of it. The other unique songs were often rearranged as well; Penny's theme had at least four different arrangements, probably more (though only one ended up on the soundtrack).
  • The Simpsons is deservedly famous for the many variations of its main theme, sometimes in the style of those of well-known movies or TV series or rescored to be played by various instruments, like a Jazz quartet, rock bands or renaissance musicians.
  • Steven Universe uses this extensively. Specific themes and instrument choices follow each character as they appear in a scene, mingling and separating with their influence in key moments to the point where you can tell exactly who's in a scene without looking. The intro theme "We are the Crystal Gems" has variations play in scenes tied to the emotional development of Steven or the group as a whole bonding, such as when Steven first activates his shield, Centipeetle's sacrifice as Steven bubbles her Gem and promises he'll heal her, and when the Gems are congratulating Steven for passing their tests. Amethyst has a funk-influenced electric bass and drums, Pearl's music notably is dominated by piano that plays when she's in a scene such as her room, any of her musical numbers, or a solo note when it's revealed that she had been repairing the communications hub, Garnet, and by proxy Ruby and Sapphire have a low warm bass tone and reuse the melody of "Stronger than You" on occasion, Peridot uses a triangle wave synth that give off a futuristic feel, Lapis has piano and soft chimes with her own melody that gets remixed from "I am Lapis Lazuli", Jasper has a droning, synth quire pad and distorted drums that resemble a military march, and so on. Listing them all would take up a page in of itself.