Musical motifs add structure to your song — in ways that audiences don’t need to notice.
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It’s practically impossible to discuss music in any of the pop genres without having the word “hook” enter the conversation. It’s such a common part of pop songwriting that for many, the words “title”, “chorus” and “hook” are used interchangeably.
But I would argue that most songs become better compositions when the writer focuses on the use of musical motifs. A motif is similar to a hook, but with some crucial differences.
A hook is a catchy, short melodic/rhythmic/harmonic fragment that grabs attention for itself, becoming almost something like a flag that the song waves in the air. Every time it shows up in a song it appears in pretty much the same way each time. The chorus hook (usually incorporating the song’s title) is the most common type, but anything that grabs attention and is easily remembered after one or two listens is a hook.
Even if the hook gets transposed to different pitches, it usually retains its shape and rhythm. The famous guitar riff in Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” gets transposed up a fourth at the midpoint of the verse, but retains all the structural characteristics of the original statement:
A motif is also usually a melodic/rhythmic/harmonic idea, but with an important difference: it serves as an “idea” that appears in different forms throughout a song. It influences the kinds of beats and rhythms the drums use, the kinds of rhythms and melodic/harmonic shapes the rhythm guitar uses, and so on. In that sense, a motif works in the background, not usually very noticeable by most listeners. Like the steel struts in a building, a motif gives strength and structure to music without being obvious about it.
In “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, you can hear a constantly descending melodic shape that, though different each time, serves to unify the entire melody. A listener will likely not notice that the melodic shape of each fragment is similar, but that shape helps glue the entire phrase together. That downward shape isn’t a hook: it’s a motif:
Why Motifs Are So Valuable
There can be no denying that a good hook can take an ordinary song and make it sound spectacular. But developing a good motif helps by integrating all the various elements of the music. In that sense, a motif acts like a kind of musical glue.
In most good songs, several different motifs are usually at play. For example, a keyboardist and rhythm guitarist may pick up on the rhythm of the lyric, and echo some of those rhythmic ideas in their own ideas.
Motifs are something that can be worked out both in the composition of the song as well as in the recording studio during the arranging of the actual musical performance. The intro may pick up on melodic shapes that will occur in the verse or chorus melody, and so the audience will hear things in the intro that will eventually become part of the melodies they’ll hear later on.
A motif does much more to glue music together and strengthen the structure than a hook. But as it does this mostly in the background, it’s not the sort of thing that audiences notice right away — or ever.
Subtlety is a wonderful thing in musical composition. And subtlety is the power of the motif.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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