Motif in Music

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Motif in Music

A motif is a small but recognizable musical unit. The motif might consist merely of a series of pitches or a distinctive rhythm, or it might be harmonically conceived; quite often, pitch and rhythm are combined in a motif to create a discrete melodic fragment. No matter what its constituent elements, the motif needs to be repeated before it can be recognized as a unit. The repetition may be nearly continuous, as in the case of an ostinatoa short motif constantly repeated throughout a section of a compositionor the recurrence may be reserved for significant points in the structure of a work. (A form thus linked is often described as cyclical.) A motif needs to have clear boundaries, which might be established by immediately repeating the motif (as in the "Hallelujah" chorus in George Frideric Handel's Messiah, 1741), by placing a rest or pause after the motif (as in the beginning of Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, 1807), or by following the motif with contrasting material before repeating it. Although motifs vary in length, they are customarily only a portion of a complete melody.

Many motifs recur in note-for-note repetition, but a motif may be recognized even when modified. The modifications may involve rhythmic alterations (such as augmentation and diminution) and various sorts of melodic changes (including altered intervals or additional ornamentation) as well as retrograde (reversed) presentations or inversions, in which ascending pitches are substituted for descending pitches or vice versa. Sequential treatment, in which the motif is repeated at successively higher or lower pitch levels, is very common during transitional passages within large-scale structures, especially while the tonal focus is changing rapidly.

There is little consistency in terminology when discussing motifs. Some prefer the Anglicized motive, which, like motif, is derived from the Latin motus, the past participle of movere (to move). Other analysts use words such as figure, subject, clause, pattern, and segment. Both Western and non-Western cultures have terms for specialized motifs, such as leitmotifs, mottoes, head motifs, and the like.

Early History of the Motif

It is apparent in the earliest surviving music that composers were aware of the cohesive power of the motif. For example, the medieval sequence Dies irae (Day of wrath), a chant later incorporated into the Catholic requiem mass, opens with a descending eight-note melodic motif that unifies the entire chant by reappearing repeatedly through the course of the eighteen verses. The somber associations of its intervallic patterns, coupled with an ominous text concerning the biblical Judgment Day, have ensured the chant's opening motif a lasting place in music that strives to evoke the supernatural, ranging from Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (1830) to Stanley Kubrick's horror film The Shining (1980).

An early assessment of musical motifs appeared in Denis Diderot's monumental Encyclopédie in 1765. The motivo (as it is called there) is described as the principal thought or idea of an aria and thus constitutes "musical genius most particularly" (Grimm, p. 766a). Similar and expanded descriptions continued to appear on into the twentieth century. In 1906 the music theorist Heinrich Schenker argued that the "fundamental purpose" of a cyclical form is "to represent the destiny, the real personal fate, of a motif or of several motifs simultaneously" (p. 12). He added, "At one time, [the motif's] melodic character is tested; at another time, a harmonic peculiarity must prove its valor in unaccustomed surroundings; a third time, again, the motif is subjected to rhythmic change: in other words, the motif lives through its fate, like a personage in a drama" (p. 13).

Structural Uses of a Motif

Even among those uncomfortable with such anthropomorphic analysis, there is widespread recognition of the motif's role in creating unity within large or disparate pieces. Navajo traditions include an enormous body of Yeibichai songs, representing sacred ancestral spirits. Every one of the songs includes the call of the ancestors, a motif sung to the syllables "Hi ye, hi ye, ho-ho ho ho!" The Quechan tribe, in contrast, sings songs about natural history and lore, grouped into large cycles or series. In their Bird Series, all the songs are related by ending with the same "ha ha ha haaa" motif.

Melodic motifs.

Melodic motifs have functioned structurally in many genres of music. The chief architectonic technique used by Renaissance composers of multivoice masses and motets was imitative counterpoint, in which subsequent voices repeated or echoed the opening motif presented by the initial singer. Similarly, in a Baroque fugue, the work begins with a subject that is reiterated in different registers, and the same motif reenters at later points in the work to start new series of imitative entrances.

Opera composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wrote arias with "motto openings," in which the first phrase of the song was performed by the singer, followed by a contrasting instrumental passage; the vocalist repeated the same opening phrase but then continued on with the remainder of the aria. In contrast, a single motif may serve as an introductory flourish for an entire set of pieces, such as the multiple movements of some Renaissance masses written in cyclical form, by having each movement begin with the same "head motif" or "motto."

Another common use of mottoes, especially in instrumental music, is the repetition of a clear-cut opening motif to signal important structural points within a movement. The slow, solemn fanfare that begins the first movement of Beethoven's "Pathétique" Sonata, Op. 13, is followed by the fast main sectionthe expositionbut it returns twice to underscore the start of the movement's development (tonally unstable) and coda (concluding) sections.

Harmonic motifs.

Many cultures use certain harmonic motifs to provide a sense of completion or finality. In Western art music, these motifs are often described as cadence "formulas"; one of the most familiar of these is the Plagal (or "Amen") cadence that concludes hymns and other church music. Because cadence formulas are so ubiquitous, composers frequently embellish and prolong them in elaborate ways.

Harmonic motifs also occur in many styles of jazz music. Jazz performers often take the sequence of harmonies (or chord changes) underpinning a tune and use those borrowed chords as the basis for new melodic improvisations. The chords of George Gershwin's Broadway show tune "I Got Rhythm" (1930) are an especially popular source; numerous jazz hits have been based on these particular chord changes.

Rhythmic motifs.

The organization of rhythm into recognizable groupings is a widespread motivic device. Many music analysts borrow from the vocabulary of poetic meter to describe short patterns of strong and weak pulses in music; thus a short note followed by a longer one would be called an iamb, while a longer note preceding a shorter note is a trochee. It has been traditional in Western literature and music to regard these different rhythms as possessing different emotional qualities.

Cultural customs lead to longer rhythmic patterns in varying contexts. Dances all over the world depend on set rhythmic motifs; a minuet has a different rhythmic pattern than a gavotte or a mazurka. In classical music of India, clap-patterns can be incorporated into a performance in accordance with one of the ancient rhythmic patterns, known as a tala. The complicated layering of much African drumming consists of the simultaneous presentation of diverse rhythmic motifs by various players, often repeated in ostinato fashion.

Representational motifs.

In numerous cultures, a motif may carry symbolic meaning. Much of India's classical music, for example, is based on rāgas. Each rāga combines aspects of a modea certain set of pitcheswith particular melodic motifs. Rāgas carry extramusical associations, sometimes linked to emotions, divinities, and even particular seasons of the year or times of day. Similarly the leitmotifs (leading motives) that Richard Wagner used in the four music dramas of his opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The ring of the Nibelungs; 18481874) are linked with a person, an object, or even an idea, and were repeated at different points in the work to bring that association back to our minds. For instance, in Die Walküre (the second music drama in the cycle), when Wotan refers to a "hero to come," the orchestra sounds the motif linked with Siegfried (even though at that point Siegfried has not yet been born).

Motifs can also portray more than just characters and objects in a story; at times, motifs have represented composers themselves. Since, in German musical nomenclature, the note B-flat is transcribed as a "B" and B-natural is transcribed as an "H," Johann Sebastian Bach was able to use a motif based on the letters of his last name as a subject for a fugue. Many other composers have embedded motivic messages into their works through this type of cryptography.

Despite its often tiny size, the motif's diversity makes it one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of composers and performers. It is one of the few musical characteristics that can be found in virtually all world cultures as well as throughout recorded history. Perhaps most important for listeners, a motif is a device by which music gains cohesion and, often, comprehensibility.

See also Composition, Musical ; Harmony ; Motif: Motif in Literature .


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Grey, Thomas S. " wie ein rother Faden: On the Origins of r'leitmotif' as Critical Construct and Musical Practice." In Music Theory in the Age of Romanticism, edited by Ian Bent. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Grimm, M. "Motif." In Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raissoné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert. Vol. 10. Neuchâtel, Switzerland: S. Faulche, 1765.

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Koch, Heinrich Christoph. Introductory Essay on Composition: The Mechanical Rules of Melody (Sections 3 and 4). Leipzig, Germany, 1787. Translated, with an introduction, by Nancy Kovaleff Baker. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1983.

Schenker, Heinrich. Harmony. Edited and annotated by Oswald Jonas, translated by Elisabeth Mann Borgese. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1954.

Yeston, Maury. The Stratification of Musical Rhythm. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1976.

Alyson McLamore