A hook will pull listeners in to your song. A motif does practically the same thing, but in a slightly different way.
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A hook is that part of a song that is short, immediately catchy, and memorable. Long after the minute details of a song have faded from memory, the hook will often remain. The stomp-stomp-clap of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” is a great example. Song hooks often involve the song title, so you’ll find yourself singing that title over and over to yourself all day long (“I got the moves like Jagger, I got the moves like Jagger…“), even if you don’t quite remember much else.
Like a hook, a motif is short and repetitive. But there’s a crucial difference: a hook works in the foreground, while a motif works in the background.
And one other difference: a hook repeats throughout a song in a more-or-less unaltered form. But a motif can (and usually does) change throughout a song, being used as an important structural component.
Young the Giant’s “Cough Syrup,” is currently #10 on Billboard’s Rock Songs chart, and it’s a great song to use as an example of the importance of a motif in a song.
To understand the difference between a hook and a motif, it works to use your own house as an example. Some conspicuous feature, like a crystal chandelier, a 50-inch TV screen, or maybe a large antique bookcase, would be a kind of hook: they’re obvious, and they’re probably what a visitor would remember the most when they leave your house.
A visitor might not notice that the reddish tiles you chose for the bathroom walls are the same colour, even if the size is different, as the tiles you chose for the back of the kitchen sink. And the reddish colour is perhaps what you chose for a colour for the bathroom accessories. Those tiles, and their colour, are a kind of motif. They aren’t as obvious as a 50-inch TV, but they do a lot to “pull the house together.”
And for that reason, motifs are tremendously important to songwriters.
So back to Young the Giant’s “Cough Syrup.” Motif actually plays a more important role in the success of this song than hook. The guitar intro starts with pairs of notes moving in a downward direction, which then reverses itself midway through the intro to become an upward-moving line:
The fact that the vocal melody for the verse starts by repeating the beginning of this line more-or-less as written doesn’t make it a motif. But as the singer reaches the second line (“I’m losing my mind losing my mind losing control”), a new melody is created. That new melody picks up on the idea (i.e., the motif) of short groupings of notes moving upward, as we see in the second half of the intro. It’s not the same as the intro, but we hear a similarity there, even if it’s not obvious. That’s what a motif does.
The main characteristic of the motif, the drawing of attention toward a descending line and then an ascending one, can be found in the chorus. The chorus picks up on the descending line from the beginning of the intro, but instead of descending in pairs of notes, it gets stretched out: one “descent” every two bars. Lots of repeating notes, but we’re aware of a downward direction:
This kind of use of a motif is, as I mentioned earlier, something that operates in the background. No one is listening to “Cough Syrup” and remarking on the brilliant use of scale passages and note pairs as a motivic device.
And in truth, songwriters themselves often don’t find themselves to be aware of it. It’s more likely that good songwriters have a “feel” for how their melodies should unfold, and that feel is strongly linked to the development of musical motifs, whether consciously aware of it or not.
But as a songwriter, you can choose to make conscious decisions about using motifs in your music. Here are some ideas:
- If your verse consists mainly of downward moving melodic ideas, try reversing that and using upward moving melodic shapes in the chorus.
- Try taking your verse’s chord progression, and see if it works in a backwards direction. (You can read more about this kind of chord progression in this article, “Creating and Using Palindromic Chord Progressions“
- Try setting up short rhythms in your song intro, and then creating melodies that use those rhythms. (Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is a prime example.)
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