Make Better Music 12: Motifs

make better music. Trebuchet magazine
make better music. Trebuchet magazine

One thing that can really make your music sound more professional, as well as adding an extra artistic dimension is the use of motifs. As with everything music-related, there are many interpretations of what this idea is, and how to use it. So it makes sense to explore the idea and make use of anything that strikes you as worth trying.

A motif is an idea that the audience can latch onto and recognise when it is repeated. It could be a particular sound, a certain distinctive pair of notes in succession, or a chord…a rhythm…anything distinctive that stands out to the listener as an “event” that they would recognise if it happened again. This can then be used for different effects. For example if your motif is a chord ( a simple major chord won’t suffice, unless it’s perhaps combined with another distinctive element like a unique rhythm or sound – remember it needs to stand out to the audience) you dramatically state the chord loud and up front at one point…then subtly and quietly under a melody at a different point. If the motif is a unique rhythm, you can accompany an seemingly unrelated tune with this rhythm and people will pick up the connection.

A motif can be used to unify a piece, or collection of pieces of music. You can think of them as a character in a film. They could be a main character who is on screen most of the time…or they may be a mysterious character who only appears a few times but is very important to the plot!

Another use for your motif is to generate ideas for more music. You can turn your motif upside down, inside out, backwards…you can repeat it, change it, purposefully leave it out after creating the expectation that it will arrive!

A motif can have a meaning attached to it – many composers used ideas that had some symbolic meaning, and the way that idea was treated in the music would give the audience food for thought about what the meaning of the music might be…for example Shostakovich liked to use his personal motif – D, Eb, C, B (the reason behind his choice of notes is easily found on google…) as a musical representation of himself. So listening to one of his symphonies you might well hear his personal motif stated…then drowned out by another motif…(perhaps one representing some personal enemy!), then a battle between the two ideas before the orchestra finally triumphantly blasts out his motif D, Eb, C, B on all the instruments. A more up to date example would be taking a distinctive phrase from a lead part or vocal line and using it in a bassline – or vice versa.

The key question to ask yourself is “what is the memorable idea?” – this could be the key to creating a deep, satisfying and unified piece of music. You can use this memorable idea to generate other parts, new sections – whatever you can imagine.

What is also important, is to remember that working with this concept and playing with the ideas can all be done in your head. Once you have practiced this sort of method, you can almost sit back and let your mind play through the options for you.

Try to have a clear idea of what your ideas are and how you want to use them before sitting down to make the tune. If other ideas come while you are making it – great! But if they don’t at least you will have a clear goal and a good idea of how to achieve it.

Remember – find the most distinctive, memorable idea(s) in the piece and use them wisely and purposefully…but always appropriately! If the sort of piece you are making does not call for the ideas to be bouncing around and appearing everywhere then don’t do it!

Being aware of the technique will never hurt though – and shaping other parts of the music using the most meaningful ideas will give you a means to convey your message, and give a deeper experience to the listener.

About Dave.
David Learnt composition (harmony, counterpoint and orchestration) to degree level through studying Schoenbergs Fundamentals of Musical Composition. He is a founder member of avant pop duo Cnut, and orchestral doombience outfit Regolith.

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About Dave Graham 70 Articles
David Learnt composition (harmony, counterpoint and orchestration) to degree level through studying Schoenbergs Fundamentals of Musical Composition, the classic text on twentieth century harmony by Vincent Persichetti, Henry Mancini's Sounds and Scores, Rimsky-Korsakov's excellent books on orchestration as well as studying any scores that intrigued me. He is a founder member of two bands, avant pop duo Cnut, and orchestral doombience outfit Regolith, and have performed across Europe with them.

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