If you find yourself using a melodic or rhythmic idea throughout a song, you’re using a motif. Here’s how that works.
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If you’re struggling to understand exactly what a musical motif is, and why it can be so important, give a song like “God Only Knows” (Brian Wilson, Tony Asher) a listen, and you’ll hear how a simple rhythmic motif helps glue the entire song together.
Most melodic phrases start with a short 2-beat rest (silence) at the beginning of each line of the lyric:
[BEAT BEAT] I may not always love you
[BEAT BEAT] But long as there are stars above you
[BEAT BEAT] You never need to doubt it
[BEAT BEAT] I’ll make you so sure about it
[BEAT BEAT] God only knows what I’d be without you…
A motif is simply a musical idea that gets repeated throughout a song, sometimes pretty much exactly as it first appears, but often in some kind of changed way. I’ve mentioned on this blog before how the melody of McCartney’s “Yesterday” is made up of lines, most of which end with a descending melodic shape. (“Yes-ter-day”, “far a-way”, “here to stay”). That descending line that happens on those words is a melodic motif.
With “God Only Knows”, the fact that each line of lyric (melody) starts with a 2-beat silence is a rhythmic motif. It helps the listener because they keep hearing that 2-beat silence over and over, and it becomes pleasantly predictable.
Motifs can then be used on a deeper level. For example, in the 4-line verse of “Yesterday”, the 4th line does the opposite.. it moves upward. That’s an example of how motifs develop throughout a song. A songwriter might take an idea and then think of all the different ways it can be developed and changed.
Often, those changes will happen on an instinctive level. For example, in “God Only Knows”, each of the first few lines of the instrumental bridge section features 2 “shots” – drawing attention to what used to be 2 silences. The fact that it changed from silences to instrumental shots is a development of that rhythmic motif.
In your own songwriting, try to find ways to incorporate motifs into your melodies, rhythms… even your lyrics. Once you’ve got that melodic or rhythmic idea, see how many ways you can use it throughout the song.
By the way, each motif you create doesn’t necessarily need to develop or change. For example, in Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground“, many lines of verse start with a 2-syllable word that gets presented as a short syllable followed by a long one (“Peo-ple….”, “Soldiers….”). For one-syllable words, it’s always a long syllable. That idea doesn’t really change much.
A motif has the added benefit of making songs more memorable, and is an integral part of creating earworms. And just to clarify, motifs and hooks are similar in nature, but a hook differs in the sense that it’s usually very short and catchy, up front and noticeable. A motif is much more subtle, often doing its work in the background.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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