Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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A motif is a musical idea that keeps recurring throughout a song. This may be a rhythmic fragment, it might be a melodic shape, a word, or some other repeating element. You might think that I’ve just described a hook, but while there’s a similarity, there’s one crucial difference: hooks are short ideas that keep repeating pretty much the same way every time you hear it, while a motif is an idea that develops and changes throughout the song, providing structure that pulls the song together to form a cohesive musical entity.
You’ve probably been using motifs in your songwriting without even knowing it. If, throughout your melody, you notice that an upward leap is an important structural element, that’s a motif. In Shontelle’s “Impossible”, the fact that much of the melody of the verse uses pairs of pitches (“I remember years ago/Someone told me I should take…”), that’s a motif. And it points out the main difference between a hook and a motif. A hook is immediately noticeable, while a motif works very much in the background.
A hook is a short, memorable fragment that almost defines a song. You start singing a hook and right away everyone knows which song that is. That’s the job of a hook. But a motif is less spectacular, but every bit as important.
A motif is more subtle. In your house, you might put a strip of brick along the backsplash of your kitchen sink, because there is a similar colour of brick on the floor. Then, that orangy colour of brick might be the colour of one of the walls. That brick has, you might say, provided the brick/orange motif for your kitchen.
To a person visiting your house, is it obvious? No, possibly not. But that brick motif “pulls together” various parts of your room, and helps it all work together and make sense.
Your song needs a motif as well. It needs something that can pull together various parts of your song, and make them all feel like they belong together. Some examples of motifs for a song might be the basic rhythm that the drummer lays down, then some melodic shapes that show up in the melody which might also be picked up by the rhythm guitar.
But let’s reiterate the thing about motifs: they do their work in the background, while a hook does its work in the foreground. But the motif is every bit as important because it helps your song make sense.
My advice is to take any/every song you write, and make sure that the various components (melody, rhythm, harmonies, etc.) all have something in common. It will give your song a real sense of form and structure that is vital to its survival.
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