A unique snowflake

10 Ideas for Concert Themes

I love coming up with themes for concert programs! Of course it’s perfectly fine to play concerts without any theme, and plenty of people do that regularly. However, if you perform on a regular basis, especially to the same audiences (for example, at retirement communities), it can be very fun for both you and them if you pick themes for each performance.

Another great reason for organizing your performance programs by theme is that you can repeat the same pieces in multiple programs and nobody will blame you. It makes perfect sense if that piece matches both themes. This helps you more easily create a regular concert program rotation.

Having the freedom to repeat pieces makes it so much easier to have a full and varied concert schedule without having to keep too much repertoire practiced up at all times. Then when you do have the time and inclination to learn new repertoire, it’s fun and easy to pick what to learn next if you have themes you want to match up with!

So without further ado, here’s a list of theme ideas to get you started:

1. Nature and Seasons

Rain in a forest
Photo by Bibhukalyan Acharya from Pexels

One of my favorite types of themes to create are those that include a variety of works all based on the same aspects of nature. Because my programs change monthly year-round, I especially like to time these themes at the appropriate time of year so they match specific types of weather or seasons.

During a rainy season, for example, you could use works about rain such as Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude No. 15 in D flat Major, Op 28 and Debussy’s Estampes, L. 100, No. 3: Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain). Obviously depending on the climate you live in, the appropriate time of year could vary, but you get the idea.

You’d be amazed how many pieces you can find all on one subject. For example, take the subject of “boats”. In addition to the plethora of Barcarolles (Venetian boat songs) by various composers, there’s Ravel’s Miroirs Op. 43, No. 3: “Une barque sur l’ocean” (a boat on the ocean), MacDowell‘s Sea Pieces, Op. 55, and surely plenty of others.

A few other popular themes like this that come to mind are birds, the moon, specific seasons, and just nature in general.

2. Birthday of Composer

A puppy wearing a party hat in front of a cake with a candle
Photo by Natasha Fernandez from Pexels

I love celebrating the birthdays of composers as they go by, especially those of my favorites. In fact, some months I will dedicate completely to one composer. For example, March is Chopin month, and August is Debussy. In each of those months, I would also play those rain pieces I mentioned above by these composers. That way I already have two repetitions of each of those pieces!

Most months I’ll usually throw in a few pieces by composers born during that month, even if the entire program isn’t dedicated to them, because it’s such an easy way to justify playing the piece, thus more easily reaching the needed number of annual repetitions!

3. Time Period

A medieval castle
Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

A very standard way to organize music is by musical time period. For example, in my April program is primarily music from the late-19th, early-20th century. This is partially because Rachmaninoff, who composed during that time, has a birthday in April, but I don’t play enough pieces by him to warrant a Rachmaninoff-only program. So instead I play my pieces of his as well as his contemporaries.

Notice that I could put that Debussy piece I mentioned above in that program, and then I’d have all 3 necessary repetitions of that piece and wouldn’t need to find another place to program it!

You can be broad with this category, such as Romantic period, Baroque period, etc, or be very specific. Once I put together a program of music all composed in the 1890’s as well as one with only music published in the year 1910. It’s very interesting to see the variety of works all composed at almost the exact same time!

4. Location/Nationality

The Eiffel tower next to the Seine
Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

This is another very easy category to understand and implement. I like to celebrate composers of certain nationalities during times that those countries might be celebrated anyway. For example, in July I have a program that’s half American composers for American Independence Day, and half French composers for Bastille Day.

You can also select pieces that were all composed in the same country or city. For example, there are many composers who weren’t French, but spent time composing in Paris, such as Chopin, Liszt, and Stravinsky. Combine those with a few actual French composers who were from Paris or studied there and pretty soon you have an all Paris program! (Now I have an opportunity to repeat that Debussy piece a 4th time, which gives me some room to decide where I really want it to go.)

5. Musical Form or Genre

It can be very fun to see the variations different composers came up with when using the same musical from or genre. There are lots of wonderful preludes, for example, all throughout the standard repertoire of Western music, from Bach to Debussy and beyond!

By programming pieces with the same musical form or genre throughout history you can see how they developed and changed over time, and how each composer had their own unique spin on it.

6. Human Conditions

A person walking alone

There are plenty of works that were inspired by certain aspects of life as a human. Many of these pieces are obvious by the title, but others require a bit of digging into the inception of the piece.

Love, of course, is a very common theme. There are so many pieces about love that you could potentially be even more specific, focusing only on certain types of love such as unrequited, mature, lustful, etc.

Other common life themes that come to mind are religion (and various aspects therein such as the Virgin Mary, Heaven/Hell, etc), death, and specific emotions (happiness, sadness, etc).

You can even make your own decision about a piece fitting one of these themes if you like. For example, as far as I know Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4 isn’t about anything specific. However, the feeling that comes across from it is definitely one of sadness, or perhaps even death. As the program creator, that decision is up to you!

7. Specific Musical Patterns

Music manuscript
Photo by hermaion from Pexels

It can be fun to collect works that do similar things musically. For example, you could have a program where the main melody is based on the same note repeated multiple times. You’d be surprised how many pieces you can find like this.

Some that come to mind are Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat Major, Op. 90, Scriabin’s Étude No. 9 in G-sharp minor, Op. 8, “Alla Ballata”, and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata No. 2 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, Movement I. Adagio sostenuto.

Other possible musical patterns could be prominent use of scales or arpeggios, Fugues or Fugue-like passages/imitative counterpoint, similar musical texture (for example, broken chords in LH, melody in RH), or important LH melodies. As usual, this is nowhere near an exhaustive list of the options here.

8. Meter

The beginning of a piano music score that clearly shows a 3/4 time signature

Another simple theme could be pieces that all have the same meter. Probably this wouldn’t be very interesting if the meter you chose was 4/4, since such a wide variety of pieces use that meter almost nobody would be able to detect what the theme was.

If you use this theme idea, I would suggest using less common meters. Use of asymmetrical meters, such as 5/8, could be very interesting. It doesn’t have to be the entire piece; Even one measure that uses that meter counts in my opinion.

A collection of Waltzes would also be a nice theme, especially if you chose pieces that varied widely throughout history. Even 6/8 is a rare enough meter that it could create a nice program if put together properly.

9. Key

A piece of sheet music on some piano keys
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

I’ve been quite surprised at times to compare what pieces, especially famous ones, are all in the same key. C# minor, for example, is home key to several very popular works including Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu Op. posth. 66, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata No. 2 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2.

Pay attention to what patterns you find within your own repertoire and see if you can collect together works that are all in the same key!

Note: As with some other theme ideas it’s important to find a way to make this interesting. You can do this by showing the variety of works that have been created within the same key. Or, as I did above with C# minor, pointing out all the famous works that share the same tonal center.

10. Tempo

A piano piece with the tempo marked Vivace

The last idea I will give you in this post is that of grouping together works with the same or similar tempo markings. This theme can be a little bit tricky because you don’t want to put your audience to sleep by playing all Largo works, or stress everyone out by playing all Prestissimo.

However, if done right this can be a fun theme because, as with many of the other themes, you have the opportunity to show off the variety that different composers have come up with within the same tempo.

For example, I just did a quick search in Google of “Piano Adagios” and found a CD called Romantic Piano Adagios that includes works by a wide variety of artists including Beethoven, MacDowell, and Fauré. Most other tempo markings aren’t quite as searchable as Adagio, but on your own you can still collect works within the same tempo with enough variation to still be interesting.

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Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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