A repetitious element, like a motif, adds important structural cohesiveness to songs of any genre.
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In songwriting, there are two elements that owe their existence and noteworthiness to repetition. One is a hook, that repeating element that ropes the listener in by being short, catchy, and memorable. The other is a motif, a small melodic and/or rhythmic bit that serves as a building block for the basic structure of a song. The main difference between the two is that a hook repeats identically each time, while a motif is more subtle, often doing its work in the background.
A motif can (and usually does) change as it progresses through a song. As an example, listen to “Skyfall” (written by Adele, Joel Pott and Paul Epworth for the upcoming James Bond movie of the same name). The chorus melody uses an upward leap that serves as an important motif. That upward leap keeps changing, but that’s its nature, and why we often speak of “motivic development“, but rarely of “hook development“. Hooks stay the same, but motifs are musically malleable.
One of the reasons that particular motif is so effective in “Skyfall” is that the verse melody, by contrast, is relatively low-pitched, and except for a few instances is based primarily on stepwise motion. The interval of the important chorus leap keeps increasing, creating a lovely climactic moment on “we will stand tall…”.
It’s of course quite possible to use both a hook and a motif in the same song; using one doesn’t preclude using the other. Because of the structural power and flexibility that often comes from a motif, one could argue that a motif can be every bit as important (perhaps even more so) as a hook.
Using a motif in your song is something that should be considered at the beginning stages of composition.
Rhythm can serve as an important motif. A good example can be found in The Beatles’ song “Penny Lane”: the words “Penny Lane…” feature two quick notes on “Penny”, and then a longer note value on “Lane.” That same rhythmic idea then happens on “…in my ears…” — two quick notes on “in my”, and a longer value on “ears”. Non-musicians would never consciously be aware of that, but it’s one reason why the song works so well. Rhythmic motifs work a bit like glue, pulling together song bits.
Just as a hook can serve as a good starting point for creating a song, a motif can be the seed from which a full song emerges. A well-used motif means that you’ve been able to take an initial idea and change it to suit different parts of your song. Here are some ideas:
- For a melodic motif: Adele uses a rising melodic leap that keeps changing in size, but there are other things you can do with a melodic motif: instead of a rising leap, try a descending one in a different part of the song.
- For a rhythmic motif: The Beatles used a rhythmic motif of two short notes followed by a long one throughout “Penny Lane”. But you can reverse motifs; try taking a distinctive rhythmic idea and playing it backwards. Or change the number of short or long notes. Each time you modify the original motif, you hide it, in a way, but it still does very important work in your song.
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