Chances are, you only need to hear the first four notes of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” to immediately recognize what you’re listening to. That’s because these four notes are what’s known as a motif in music—a tool used by the composer to make the piece cohesive and memorable. 

Once you learn to identify a musical motif, you’ll start hearing them just about everywhere—in songs on the radio, movies, TV shows and even in video games. And if you’re looking to get started with composing music yourself, motifs will be an essential part of your toolkit that will help you create captivating, engaging and easily recognizable pieces. 

What Is a Motif in Music

Any feature or concept that repeats itself in a work of art is considered a motif. You might already be familiar with motifs used as a literary device, but they’re also found in fine art, design, architecture, filmmaking, theater, dance and other forms of creative expression. 

In music, a motif is a small collection of notes (typically between 2 and 10) that contains a musical idea and is repeated throughout the song. A piece might have a central motif that it’s known for (like the first four notes of “Symphony No. 5”, for example), but it usually also has a number of smaller, less pronounced motifs. When combined together, motifs give the song structure and make it memorable and easily recognizable. 

Composers and songwriters may also use motifs to convey a theme, establish a mood or evoke certain feelings in the listener. For example, a composer might start the song with a cheerful melody, take it in a darker direction to represent conflict, but then bring back a motif from the beginning to convey a resolution and evoke a sense of peace. 

Motif vs. Phrase vs. Theme

The word motif is sometimes used synonymously with the terms phrase and theme. However, in music these three terms have distinct meanings and functions. 

A motif is much shorter than a phrase. If you think of individual notes as letters, a motif would be a word, while a phrase would be a sentence. A phrase has a clear conclusion and feels complete when heard on its own. 

A theme is a section of a song that carries special meaning and is often repeated more than once. It’s usually made up of one or more phrases. 

Types of Motifs in Music

Most musical motifs act as the building blocks of a melody, but that’s not always the case. In fact, there are three types of motifs in music: melodic, harmonic and rhythmic. 

  1. Melodic motifs, when combined with other notes or other motifs, create the melody of a song.
  2. Harmonic motifs are made up of chords, rather than individual notes. For example, a movie score may not have a melody, but consist of a four chord progression that repeats over and over. 
  3. Rhythmic motifs are small sections that share the same rhythm. The notes in these sections may be different, but as long as they follow the same rhythmic pattern, they’re considered a motif. Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” is actually a rhythmic motif—the four notes follow a short-short-short-long pattern, and this pattern is repeated many times throughout the piece using different notes. 

Examples of Motifs in Music

Any piece of music, regardless of genre, uses motifs as building blocks. You may recognize the following examples of motifs in popular music:

  1. “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen: the first and second line of each verse follows the same melody (a melodic motif). 
  2. “Yesterday” by The Beatles: every line in the verses ends with a similar melody—the notes are different, but the rhythm is the same as the first Yesterday… (rhythmic motif). 
  3. “Time” by Hans Zimmer: anyone familiar with the theme song from the film Inception might recognize it just from hearing the four chords it’s made up of (harmonic motif). 

You can probably find many more examples of motifs in your favorite songs. To identify a motif in music, simply listen for a collection of notes, a rhythm or a chord progression that repeats a few times throughout the song. And if you currently have music stuck in your head, there’s a good chance that’s a motif too! 

What Is a Leitmotif? 

When music accompanies a visual element, such as in film, television, musical theater, ballet and opera, some musical motifs can take on a new role and become leitmotifs. 

A leitmotif (from the German leitmotiv, meaning “leading motive”) is a motif used in association with a particular character, place, concept or situation. 

For example, “The Imperial March” is played whenever Darth Vader enters the scene in the Star Wars movies. In Jaws, the presence of a shark is implied by a highly recognizable two-note leitmotif. 

If you’re looking to get into composing film scores, you will almost certainly be tasked with creating leitmotifs for specific characters and plot elements. 

Developing a Motif in Music

If you’re an aspiring songwriter or you’re learning to compose music, you may already be coming up with musical motifs without even realizing it. However, if you want to consistently write memorable melodies and create music people will recognize, you need to practice developing motifs with intention and strategy. 

Start by establishing a key and a chord progression. Next, improvise a melody using the notes in your chosen key and play around with the number of notes, their intervals, order and rhythm. If possible, record a few variations before choosing your favorite combination. 

At this point, you have a melody but not yet a motif—not until you bring it back at another point in your song. Here’s when you can get creative. Remember that your motif doesn’t have to sound exactly the same with each iteration. Switching things up will add interest and movement to your piece, while still keeping your motif memorable and recognizable. 

When bringing back a motif, try any of the following:

  • Change up some of the notes
  • Add or remove notes
  • Play it in a different octave
  • Play a harmony of the motif (for example, a third above the original) 
  • Reverse the order of the notes
  • Speed it up or slow it down
  • Change up the rhythm 
  • Play the same melody but change the chord(s) underneath it 

To put your motif to the test, step away from your song for a few days. If you find yourself humming it or, better yet, feeling like you can’t get it out of your head, that’s a sure sign that your composition has some serious potential! 

Try It Yourself 

Next time you’re listening to music, try to listen for motifs—see how many you can identify and think about what they add to the song. And if you’re writing your own music, play around with motifs and see for yourself how adding a bit of repetition can help you better tell your story and captivate your listeners.

Ready to Write Your Own Song? 

Toplining 101: Melody & Lyrics in Songwriting

Written By
Sayana Lam

Sayana Lam

Sayana is a musician, writer and graphic designer based in Toronto, Canada.

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