A motif in music can be described in two different ways, and it can serve two different functions. But those functions, while appearing to serve different needs, are all connected. So, let’s take a closer look and try to clarify and answer what is a motif in music?
A Short Idea
The most basic definition of a motif in music is a short musical idea. It is a small piece of a melody which those who hear it can immediately identify with.
It is also used specifically as what you might call an “identifier.” And this is used in films, operas, and other works where music plays a part. We will come back to this as it plays an important role in music composition.
Having a Motif Helps Us To Analyze the Music
There are times when we have to analyze music or at least look closely at its construction. One of the problems is that sometimes the process can be difficult to manage, especially in the case of large complex works like symphonies. Motifs are a way of managing this by breaking the piece up into manageable units or sections. Motifs are one such section.
Let’s look at the Analysis Option first. I have decided to separate the two functions of motifs in music. But as we go through the definitions of the four main types of musical motifs, you will see how some can become “identifiers.”
So, Exactly What is a Musical Motif?
It could be described as being a form of structural or thematic identity. It is usually a very small piece of music that is instantly recognizable. We shall look at some great examples a bit later.
What is Thematic Identity?
Sounds like a fancy title, but it just means that the motif is theme-related. The theme is the main idea of the piece and on which the music is based. Let’s start by giving an example of that.
In the world of the masters, the first four notes of Beethoven’s classic 5th Symphony in C Minor come to mind. This is a great example of a themed motif. And I might add one that is repeated with variations throughout the piece.
In other words, the idea on which the music is based. It is a small unit of music, just four notes, but it is instantly recognizable. We shall return to that later as it is a particular type of musical motif.
How Small Can a Motif Be?
As we have just seen, it can be a very small section. But it cannot be a single note. Why not? A good way of explaining it is using the alphabet. Imagine for a moment that the consonants are notes.
Take the letter G, for example. On its own, it means nothing and cannot communicate a word to you. But when other letters are added, maybe E and T, it makes sense and describes an action, “Get.”
Music is the same. A single note doesn’t mean anything. But when the other notes are added to make the melody, it all makes sense.
Different Types of Motifs in Music
A Melodic Motif gives you a specific sequence or melodic formula. Sometimes it can just be the melody’s first few bars. But as the sequence is repeated many times during the piece, it is a melodic motif. It hasn’t got to necessarily be the same notes. It is an outline or a general principle that is repeated.
These are different from Melodic Motifs. Harmonic Motifs are created by chords or intervals and do not follow a melodic formula that is specific. It is a common occurrence in ancient church music and hymns.
As we can see from the names, these are created from the specific rhythms and also the notes of a particular melody. We have already mentioned Beethoven’s masterpiece, his 5th Symphony. That is a great example of a rhythmic motif in music.
This has had such an impact on music that the structure of the notes and rhythm has its own name. It is called the “Fate Motif.” Three short notes are followed by a longer note. It is a great example of how a simple theme is used so many times in so many different ways. Listen to Beethoven: Fifth Symphony and hear for yourself.
Some might say
Many of the things Beethoven did Mozart had already tried. There is a Mozart Motif that opens the wondrous Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. Just like Beethoven’s Motif opened his 5th.
You will hear that Beethoven uses his rhythmic motif over a dozen times in the piece’s first 20 bars. Mozart returns time and time again to his melodic motif, but just like Beethoven makes subtle changes.
Bringing It All Up To Date
The rhythmic motif is used today as well as in the past. One of the most famous examples is this by Queen. The combination of a simple kick drum and snare/hand-claps is another great example of a rhythmic motif found in the classic Queen anthem We Will Rock You.
These are the most common musical motifs in film scores. This is a different type of musical motif with a different purpose. When trying to answer the question, “What is a motif in music?” you can’t ignore this type of musical motif.
The other motifs refer just to the melody, harmony, or rhythm it belongs to. The Leitmotif refers to an external, often visual aspect. This could be a character, an emotion or a place, or even a case of suspended anticipation.
An Unforgettable Leitmotif
Perhaps the most famous movie leitmotif is the music for “Jaws.” When you hear the music, you know exactly who is hungry and coming to say hello. These motifs are applicable these days in just about every film you see.
They may reference something that is about to happen, possibly good or evil. But they most often refer to a character. There is an endless list, and if you think about your favorite films and their music scores, it is almost certain it has a Motif.
Back To a Musical Idea
As you can see, some motifs are just extensions of an idea created by the composer. Beethoven, Mozart, Brian May, and John Williams’ “Jaws.”
However, the motif is more important than just a repetitive descriptive musical line. It is the cornerstone of the piece of music. And that applies to Mozart and Beethoven as well as May and Williams. It is the set of musical circumstances the song or music is based on.
It doesn’t matter what genre you’re in or what you are writing for, get the Motif right, and you’ve got a great song or piece of music. One that will be remembered.
Repetitions can be repeated once, twice, or three times. I have read that four times is overkill. But don’t tell the Beatles that. But then, they were light years ahead of anyone else and made up the rules for others to follow.
If you are interested in learning how the great composers applied it in their music, there’s How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond. An outstanding book that tells all.
Want To Learn More About Music Theory?
Let our experts lend a hand. Take a look at our handy article on What Is Negative Harmony, What Is a Major Chord, A Complete Guide To Major Scales, A Guide To The Chromatic Scale, Diatonic Scales, The Minor Scales, Relative vs Parallel Minor, and The Scale Degree Names Explained for more useful information.
An instrument upgrade might help you better understand all kinds of music theory. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Cremona Violins, the Best Flute, the Best Alto Saxophones, the Best Tenor Saxophones, the Best 88-Key Keyboards, the Best Digital Pianos for Under $500, and the Best Electric Cellos you can buy in 2023.
What is a Motif in Music? – More Than They Appear
I started this look at motifs by discussing how they are used to analyze and look at the complexities of a piece of music. They do that, and we couldn’t do without them for that purpose. But they are so much more.
We have seen how they are used to create drama and to make associations in music, how they have been used as a “hook” through centuries of music, and how they are the absolute cornerstone of a great song or great piece of music. Musical Motifs are one of the great theories to master for all composers.
Until next time, let your music play.