Learn from the Classics – A Musical Motif Makes Your Song Feel Connected from Beginning to End

A musical element that repeats throughout a song is called a motive, or motif. It’s not really a hook (though a good hook uses a motif.) With a hook, you get a musical figure that continuously repeats throughout a song in an unmodified form, and really gets inside the brain of the listener. With a motif, you get a recurring fragment that the listener might not actually be aware of, and this fragment is modified to create other related fragments.

So if the listener is not necessarily aware of the existence of a motif, what good is it?! Read on..

A motif is a rhythmic or melodic idea that is used as a template for the rest of the rhythmic or melodic ideas in a song. And all the classics use motifs. For a rhythmic motif, think of Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Born in the USA.” Springsteen puts a strong rhythmic pulse on the second beat of most bars. The second beat is where the word “Born” occurs. As you listen, you’ll notice that every line either starts on beat 2, or it has a special accent that occurs on beat 2. This is a rhythmic motif. If you asked a listener if they like the special significance that beat 2 gets in this song, they’d probably not really know what you’re talking about. But the fact that it’s there glues the song together, and really makes it work.

The repeating melody that accompanies the words “Born in the USA” repeats over and over, and is actually the hook of the song. The fact that it starts on a certain note, descends a bit, rises a bit, and then returns to its original note, is the melodic motif.

Your songs will be more successful if you can build them using particular melodic or rhythmic motifs. Think of a motif as something similar to doing the interior designing of a house. You might decide to use the colour yellow in various ways throughout the house. In one room, it might be the main colour. In another, it might be an accent colour. And in still another, it might be picked up in the choice of flowers in the vase. The visitor to the house might not be aware of the colour yellow as a motif, but will nonetheless get the sense that there is a feeling of unity throughout the house. That’s what a motif does.

As you work on your song, try to link it all together by choosing a specific rhythmic idea, like Springsteen did, or perhaps a melodic shape that gets repeated in some way or another. By incorporating these similar ideas throughout the song, the listener feels a sense of unity, and they’ll feel a sense of satisfaction, even though they may not know why.

Posted in songwriting.

4 Comments

  1. Like you did with Billie Jean that’s brilliant, there’s nobody I know of explains music on the net like this. It’s unique, it’s like you compose the song and you explain it’s method and the relantionship between the elements of the song, like in Disturbia, it’s just brilliant!!!
    You choose a song and “dissect” it, explain in minimal detais in letters(like F#,B,C) , It helps me so much.
    More examples like this would be awesome.
    Thanks for doing this blog.

  2. Thanks for the answer Gary I really appreciate that.
    I was wondering if you could give me some examples of newer songs, so I can download the midi file of them and study exaclty what you meant.
    As I told you I love music and I an starting to understand better mostly and midi files, because I don’t have a good ear to identify the chords/notes nor I can’t read music.
    I know you wil tell me to learn those things but I am doing/composing some electronic “simple songs” that repeats it self quite a lot so just a good hook, motif and a driveing bassline is 90% there.
    What’s more I created a system where I can learn a lot from midi files because the opened in a sequencer instrument by instruments and then you can study what’s going on.
    So if you could give some examples of very known songs it might have the midi file and I can finally inderstand the motif vs melody.
    Thanks you the best!!!

  3. Hi Eric:

    Yes, most songs that are successful have a rhythmic or melodic motif that unifies the song. Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” is a good example of a melodic motif: the verse (“I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord…”) mainly plays around with three notes: E G A. Then in the Hallelujah chorus, you find that the three notes that comprise that word are E G A. That melodic motif is important because even though you hear the notes in a different order in the chorus than in the verse, those same three pitches help with the sense of continuity and unity that glues the song together.

    I think you would find that most songs have melodic motifs. Some are more subtle, and less obvious. In Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, we find that the verse melody starts on the dominant note of the key (F# minor), and plays on a descending scale passage as an important opening motif. Then the chorus plays on a descending scale/arpeggio starting on the tonic note. This is in line with my observation that verse melodies tend to be pitched lower than chorus melodies.

  4. Gary,
    I think this blog and your books amazing, thanks for doing this.
    I am not a musician just trying to learn in order to compose some electronic music.
    Can you tell me some other songs that has a very good motif that works with the melody, specially played with diferent instruments and diferent notes/chords.
    Thanks.

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