I’m often asked about motifs – how they work in typical songwriting, and if songwriters even need to be aware of them. Unlike a hook, which does its work in the foreground, a motif is a small building-block of music that works mainly in the background.
That’s not to say we don’t typically hear motifs — we do if we listen for them. But here’s the main difference between hooks & motifs: a hook is like a flag that the music waves in the air, allowing the song to be immediately identified. A motif, on the other hand, serves as a bit of melody or rhythm that strengthens the structure of a song, and works mostly in the background.
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A motif appears, and then is used either as-is, or modified and developed as a song progresses. A good example of a motif at work in a pop song: “Closing Time” (Leonard Cohen).
Much of the melody is comprised of a quickly-descending figure that serves as a melodic motif:
That alternating between a higher note and a lower one starts out as a major 2nd interval. From there, the motif changes. Sometimes you hear it as a descending 4th… sometimes a line is sung where notes barely change at all.
When the backing singers sing the “closing time” chorus, you can hear that the motif is reversed as they bend the notes upward. That’s just one way that a motif can develop and change as a song progresses.
The fact that various melodic ideas in the song share this common motif is what strengthens the structure of a song. Producers use motifs all the time when they supervise the recording of a song. They’ll add certain backing rhythms and other ideas to the instrumental accompaniment, all designed to help glue the song together.
Instinct or Purposeful?
At the songwriting level, how much of motif-writing is conscious, and how much of it just happens? It’s probably a mixture of both in the best songwriters. Good writers have an instinct for limiting the number of discrete ideas in a song by relating several seemingly unrelated ideas through the use of a motif.
There are several words that all relate to each other, but have slightly different meanings: hook, riff, motif, groove, and so on. The importance of a good hook in pop songwriting is obvious. And most songs, if they aren’t slow ballads, will need some sort of groove to keep the listener fixated.
Motifs are one more element that can really help by having one aspect of your song “sound reminiscent” of other aspects. If you’re wondering if you’re making good use of what motifs can potentially do for you, consider the following ideas:
- Melodic rhythm. Try to find ways to have rhythmic ideas repeat throughout your song, so that the melody in one section in your song bears some small resemblance to another.
- Melodic shape. Try taking a verse melody, and reversing some aspect of it. For example, if your verse melody consists of many upward-moving shoes, try writing a chorus melody that uses mainly downward-moving ones.
- Chord progressions. Let’s say you’ve worked out a good chorus progression. To create one for a verse, try borrowing ideas from that progression, ideas that might sound similar to the chorus. When an audience hears both progressions, they hear them as different, but with some pleasant aspect of similarity that helps to strengthen the song.
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