The Mechanics of a Motif

For those orchestral fans out there, the music of a symphony can often feel overwhelming, all encompassing and unable to be deciphered. For those who have dove into the world of writing for symphonies, you may have been surprised to find that much like any detailed element of life, it is simply made up of many much smaller details. This is where the motif comes in. Let us discuss its mechanics.

How about the true definition of a motif? “In music, a motif is a short musical phrase, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: The motive is the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity.” 

Motif’s exist in every genre, in slightly different forms, occurring sometimes briefly and other times being “remixed” in a fashion that is transposed and almost barely recognizable to the untrained ear. In genres with a heavy focus on guitar, oftentimes the guitar will carry the motif, often doubling it while accompanying a vocalist or similar melodic instrument such as the piano. If focusing on more of a hip-hop style, it can be argued that the motif will typically be featured in the piano or debatably the percussion. In symphonic sounds, you may find the motif displayed in the position of first violin. 

These are simply popular methods of writing and by no means rules that one must stick by, however one of our favorite quotes is “You’ve got to learn the rules first, to break them”. No words spoken are truer. Trending methods are trending for a reason - as they are typically the most loved elements of the audience. 

When comparing motifs in music to other artistic forms, you can imagine the sonic motif as representing a certain theme in a piece. The motif is the recognizable central element that the nuances and details can be built around. 

Although there is no right or wrong, it may be wise to have the motif in your piece truly embody the mood of the entire piece. It will be the standout characteristic to your listeners, especially those you don’t care to follow the tiny details and are simply listening for pleasure - which we love and need as musicians! One staple that is almost unable to be argued when it comes to a motif is that of its length. Many say that a motif should be made up of only 3, 4, or 5 notes - any more than that simply blossoms into a melody. One of the reasons behind this necessity is that the human brain can only take so much, while we also naturally find a simplistic beauty in short phrasings. 

When writing a motif, your best bet is to do your research and learn from the greats. Let your fingers wander among your instrument of choice. Keep it short and sweet. You’ll be surprised with how clever of a tool that you’ve sharpened once you get this under your belt.