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A motif is a short musical “idea” that serves as a crucial building block for a composition. While you might think I just described a hook, a motif differs by virtue of the fact that it can change throughout a song, doing most of its work in the background. A hook is up front and obvious. While it’s quite possible to have a successful song without an obvious hook, a song without any sense of motivic development hardly has a chance to grab an audience.
Here’s an analogy to help describe what I’m talking about. If you’re building an ice cream stand, you might create a large 10-foot high model of a strawberry ice cream cone that sits outside your building. That’s the hook that pulls people inside. Every time they think of your business, that ice cream cone looms large in their mind. People will likely talk about that cone, and it becomes its main identifying characteristic.
Inside the store, you might use a certain kind of attractive red brick against the back wall. Then you might use that colour for the walls of your sitting area. On the ceiling, you might decide to create circular patterns of that same red against a creamy colour… you get the idea.
In that analogy, the red colour that repeats throughout the store is a motif, an idea that works in the background, that helps to pull various elements of the store together and make them all look like they belong with each other. Motifs act like glue. More than the hook, it’s actually responsible for the beauty and coordination of the various elements. Hooks attract, but motifs make things look good.
In your songs, a hook is that immediately noticeable melodic or rhythmic (or a combination of both) idea that acts as an identifying tag. In the Beatles’ “She Loves You”, it’s that “Yeah, yeah, yeah” that happens in every chorus that’s the hook.
So how does a motif work in a song? It works in the background, presenting a usually not-so-noticeable rhythm or melodic cell that gets replicated throughout the song, sometimes as-is, sometimes inverted, sometimes starting on a different note, and so on.
Most people don’t even notice it. But just like most people won’t immediately notice that your tie is great because it’s using one of the colours of your shirt, most people won’t immediately notice a musical motif.
To use another Beatles example, “Help!” is a song for which many of the melodic fragments end with a downward turn of a 3rd. This happens at the end of the line, “When I was younger, so much younger than today..”, and again two lines later at the end of “But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured…”
Then in the section that follows, that descending 3rd motif happens at the end of every line, and that doubling up helps build song energy.
That motif actually makes its presence known in the intro to the song, where every short line ends in a descending 3rd.
So is that the sort of thing that listeners would notice? No, not very likely. And because its main job is to simply add glue to the song, pulling the various elements together, it’s also very likely (or at least possible) for songwriters to use motifs without even knowing they’re doing it. Many songwriters simply have that instinct of automatically trying to relate all sections by using a similar musical idea.
The Help! motif is a melodic idea, but motifs can also be rhythmic in nature. If you find that your verse isn’t making much of a connection with your chorus, for example, one idea to try is to make sure that rhythms from your verse are the same kinds of rhythms that show up in the chorus.
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