The “Twinkle Twinkle Variations” rank among Mozart’s more popular piano pieces, probably because of the humorous nature of concert pianists sitting down to play a child’s tune. (I love the laughter in this performance):
By the first variation, the true difficulty of this piece shines through. This plot twist and the sentimentality of the “Twinkle Twinkle” tune inspire many pianists to learn the piece.
This post (in two parts) outlines the piano techniques required for success in each variation. Additionally, I include a brief analysis of each individual variation to invite performers, composers, and listeners to think artistically of the “Twinkle Twinkle Variations. Many of the techniques described in these two posts rely on good fingering. Enter your email below to get the sheet music with recommended fingerings!
The piece is ranked as intermediate and includes a wide variety of techniques, which I describe in these two posts. It makes for a flashy end-of-year recital piece!
Before diving in, it’s helpful to include a brief reminder of variation form. Composers of this form write or use a musical idea (like the melody of “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”) and change its rhythm, harmony, articulation, dynamics, and many other parameters of what makes the theme unique.
The most important part of the form is that the variations are both similar to and different from the original theme. Variations can be shown explicitly in the sheet music with numbers (like with this one) or be hidden within the music, such as inside a symphony. Your ear will know, especially if you practice looking at these similarities and differences, like we will through this post.
Mozart used an already-existing melody for his variations, so the theme alone is an arrangement, found in the harmony in the left hand. The melody may be simple, but the arrangement is already more advanced than the first version of Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star most students learn (usually just the melody).
Mozart embellished the second half with a turn, giving a hint that this might be a little more challenging than a beginner could play. There are two clear sections in this piece. I’ll refer to the first 8 measures as “A” or “A section” and the second 8 measures as “B” or “B section.”
Technique-wise, the right hand doesn’t move much if you’re not trying to play super legato, just to reach up to the A. In this case, your fingerings could be 1 1 4 4 5 5 and so on.
The most difficult part of this melody is probably the turns, which are easiest to play when all of those notes are part of one gesture. I like to think of it as my wrist guiding the action. The wrist dips in a slight circle toward the lowest note, C, and the fingers follow as relaxed as possible in one swoopy motion.
Some pianists choose to play this melody detached, as in the performance above, and others choose to play more legato, as in below.
To play this more legato, there are a couple of options. You can use the sustain pedal, as Schwamova does, or you can adjust the fingering to accommodate legato. For this, I’d recommend using repeated-note fingerings. The first Cs would be played by 2 1, followed by 5 on the A, so that leap is legato. It’s not necessary to do this, as the score is not marked legato, so it’s best not to be so fussy about the fingerings here.
When the first variation begins, audience members are pretty sure that this is no longer a beginner’s piece. One of my favorite things about experiencing it live is seeing people’s reactions once the performer begins this variation.
The right hand of this variation shows one common compositional technique for creating variations: embellishment. The original melody is still present (hidden by falling off the beat), but Mozart adds notes around the original melody notes. These are called neighbor tones.
Because the original melody doesn’t occur on the downbeats, this variation involves a rhythmic change.
You can see the original melody highlighted in blue in the image below:
Additionally, at the end of each section (m.31 and m. 48), Mozart adds a leading tone (B in this key, shown in purple in the image above) into the melody to emphasize the cadence or coming back to C.
The overall harmony (in the left hand) is almost identical to that of the Theme, but Mozart does add in a couple of chromatic notes (from outside the key) for color.
The sheer speed of the right hand notes makes this variation sound so impressive, even more so when considering some of the leaps and how they are marked legato. The performer can’t just jump their hand up. To be successful with this variation, you must pick fingerings wisely, especially if you have small hands like me!
My recommendation for small hands in the first measure is: 4 3 2 3 2 3 2 1 | 4. Having your thumb on the final C of the first measure gives your hand more room to smoothly accommodate the leap up to A. In this variation, I recommend fingerings that always have 1 before each of these leaps, so to figure them out, work backwards from those moments.
In Variation 2, Mozart moves the speedy rhythms of the right hand into the left hand and adds a new challenge. The bass note (now the first left-hand note in every measure) plays the C E F from the original theme, but it does so an octave lower than before.
The right hand employs finger legato, which is shown by the many ties in mm. 60–63. When the A section returns, Mozart adds more chromatic harmony to give the piece more color and complexity.
This finger legato also creates a series of suspensions in mm. 60–63. Suspensions occur when a note that belongs in a chord, like the G in m. 60, is held out while the underlying harmony changes. In m. 61, the harmony changes to F major, which in this style doesn’t usually include G. This creates a sense of tension, and Mozart strings out two more suspensions after this.
Series of suspensions also give me the impression of sighing. They can create a great opportunity for expression, especially given the strict stylistic expectations of the classical style.
Although the left hand adopts the 16th-note embellishments from the right hand in Variation 1, the notes aren’t exactly the same. Mozart adds more chromatic notes (shown by the sharps) in order to add more color and expressiveness into this variation.
In the last four measures of the A section, Mozart uses the chromatic notes to descend by half step. This creates a sense of tension, ending with A♯ B C. The A♯ serves as sort of a leading tone to the leading tone (B).
Note that the left hand is now marked legato. Again, good legato relies heavily upon smart fingerings. Here, for small hands, I recommend 5 1 3 2 1 2 3 1 | 5 (or 4) and repeat. Navigating these octave leaps efficiently relies on rotation, which is tough to describe in text alone, but Dr. Josh Wright has an excellent video explaining rotation, which you can apply to the left hand here.
The right hand’s difficulty in this variation stems from finger legato: holding and releasing different notes at different times. It requires serious concentration to pay attention to which finger is releasing at what time. Figure out your fingerings first, and stick to them!
Aloys Schmitt is famous for his five-finger preparatory exercises for piano, and he includes exercises (beginning at no. 34) where one finger holds while others move.
If you’re having trouble with the finger independence in this variation, add some of the Schmitt exercises into your warmups/technique practice. Take your time with them and focus on keeping each of your fingers relaxed but still engaged. They’re available on IMSLP for free or in a nice print copy by Alfred’s on Amazon.
Dr. Josh Wright also has tutorials on the Schmitt exercises in his ProPractice Course. That’s something to check out if you need more help on these!
Aside from the finger legato, the only other technical skill is the trill. For the Classical period, trills usually consist of the note that’s written and the note above it. During the Baroque and likely also the Classical period, the common practice was to start the trill on the notated note, but after Mozart, performers instead began trills on the note above it.
For this piece,the trill would start D E D E. You can play it as fast as is comfortable and as you like.
Finally, Nahre Sol also has a helpful video on trills:
Like the first variation, Variation 3 embeds the melody within neighbor tones. Variation 3 adds arpeggios and other chromatic notes to embellish the melody as well as more drastically changing the rhythm.
Instead of dividing each quarter note into four 16th notes, this variation divides each quarter note into 3 triplet eighth notes.
The melody is highlighted in blue in the image below:
Mozart also kept the leading tone in the melody in this variation (highlighted in purple).
For the left hand harmony, this variation is probably the clearest in showing the areas of tonic (the home key — C major) and dominant (the fifth scale step — G major). These appear in the left hand as repeated half notes above (for C major) and below (for G major) the original left hand harmony.
Mozart also adds thirds in the second half of the A section to fill out the left hand a little more.
This variation highlights a pianist’s ability to play arpeggios evenly. Josh Wright has a couple of extremely helpful videos on arpeggios. In the first one, he talks about the overall arpeggio skill.
The second one is an excerpt from a VIP Masterclass Series video and is geared toward pianists with small hands (like me!):
Overall, to play arpeggios with skill, clarity, and evenness, the goal is to stay relaxed and practice slowly. If you feel any kind of tightening or wincing (even in other areas of the body, like the back), then you the technique’s not quite comfortable yet . Keep experimenting with speed until it’s truly comfortable
The other tricky technique in Variation 3 is the left hand thirds. Both Hanon and Schmitt (mentioned in Variation 2) include exercises for thirds.
There are a few videos out there on thirds, but I found this excerpt from Josh Wright’s VIP Masterclass Series video on Chopin’s Op. 25 No. 6 to be a helpful discussion of fingerings as well as technique.
In Variation 4, Mozart cleverly brings Variations 2 and 3 together. He moves the triplets from Variation 3 into the left hand and brings back the suspensions and finger legato from Variation 2. This is again an embellishment style of variation.
There isn’t anything new to add here regarding technique. Simply apply the skills from Variations 2 and 3, and you’ve got it!
Variation 5 is a mostly rhythmic variation, but because of the rests written in between each melody note, it can also be considered a change in articulation. Instead of being legato like most of the previous variations, this variation has notes that are completely detached from each other.
This variation begins similarly to the original tune: the second note in each measure comes in an eighth note later, which gives this variation a “bouncy” quality. In the second half of the A section, Mozart moves the melody to fall off the beat, which gives it a more “stumbling” characteristic.
The B section contains quicker rhythms and chromatic notes: it’s development and variation within a single variation!
This variation is marked piano. There is a tendency in musicians to play detached notes loud, so playing at the correct, soft dynamic is probably the trickiest part of this variation. Luckily, there are many fingerings available because you don’t have to worry about maintaining legato.
There are a few ways to play detached notes (also known as staccato, but these aren’t marked with the staccato dots) on the piano based on the different parts of your arm: finger, wrist, and arm. Which one you use depends on personal preference (which is more comfortable) and how much time you have between notes.
If you’re playing a quick piece with lots of repeated staccato notes, then finger staccato is probably most appropriate.
For this piece, if I were your teacher, I wouldn’t necessarily call these notes staccato to avoid any kind of jerky motions you might associate with it. Instead, I would recommend more of a finger staccato-like motion, where you draw your fingers into your palm after each note. This gives you soft control over the pitches, allowing you to keep them detached without accenting them.
In this video, Josh Wright goes over these types of staccato, and while it is helpful, definitely take it with a grain of salt for this variation:
The sixteenth-note figures will sound nice and be easier to play if you use a single gesture for them, like the single gesture I described for the turns in the Theme.
Variation 6 is another combination of techniques from previous variations. Here we have the space in between each melody note from Variation 5 along with the sixteenth-note neighbor tones in the left hand.
In the B section, the right hand takes over the steady sixteenth notes, which has the melody for a moment (shown in blue). Then, the left hand actually adopts the melody for the first time in this entire piece. It’s the first time the B-section melody is heard in that lower register.
As this is a combination of previous variations, there isn’t much to add here regarding technique.
For the quick sixteenth notes, choose your fingerings wisely, so you can stay relaxed. For the chords that have rests between them in the right hand, use a stroking motion, and keep your hand strong but relaxed.
If you do find you’re having trouble hitting the chords correctly, you might try this chord exercise from Josh Wright:
In this post, I’ve shown how to identify a few piano techniques using music theory. When approached this way, music theory provides tools to help you learn a piece of music efficiently. Mozart created many of the variations from a combination of skills found in earlier variations, so once you’ve learned the earlier ones, you’ve also attained the skills required of the later ones.
The next post looks at the final six variations in the same way, providing resources to help you better learn and understand this substantial piece of music.
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.
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