A Well-Placed Motif Can Be As Important as a Hook

A repetitious element, like a motif, adds important structural cohesiveness to songs of any genre.


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Adele - SkyfallIn 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Pingback: 5/2: Song Machine II – musicfundamentals2016

  2. Hi there, I’m not sure where your “contact” button is. But i thought i just pick one thread and reply because I can’t find it. Anyways, I really love your tips they are great. I have purchased your book collection in the past and used it to my advantage.
    Now my question is how a person (technically) can supply their imagination and brain with a continuous supply of Riffs/ostinatoes/hooks.
    I’m sure there’s a way to do this, as i know of famous pop composers have 36-40 tracks in any given year. In fact, there’s several songs he has made that don’t include chords! But they top the charts due to the strong hook base and melody.
    I believe waiting for inspiration is like waiting inside a gold mine with pick in hand, expecting someone else to hand you gold. These pros must know some tricks!

    • Hi Danny:

      There’s no magic pill for this, as I am sure you know. Channelling your creative abilities to the point where you become that prolific on a daily basis takes time and experience. Some writers are naturally gifted, and the ideas seem to flow easily. The best way I know to train your brain to create musical ideas easily is to write every day. And I don’t mean necessarily attempting to write full songs, but rather to try small songwriting challenges, such as writing quick, short melodic phrases, coming up with short snippets of lyric, and so on. There’s no sense in waiting for inspiration. If you read what composers from across all genres of music say, they’ll tell you that they feel most inspired when they’re actually working on their music. So they don’t wait for inspiration, they dive in. The more you write, the more you feel inspired to write.

      I hope these ideas help. Thanks for writing, Danny, and all the best.

  3. Very good analysis, especially your reference to the rhythmic motif. It’s easy to forget the importance of rhythm in creating a melodic idea, but using an interesting rhythm is incredibly powerful. Try clapping the opening rhythm of Beethoven’s 5th symphony; it’s just as recognizable without the melody. John Williams is a master of using interesting rhythms in his themes. If you clap the rhythm of the Imperial March or Superman, you can easily identify the themes.

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