In music, a motif is a short fragment of music that gets developed and repeated throughout the length of a song. The repetition aspect of a motif makes it similar to a hook. But a hook generally repeats verbatim; it generally sounds the same each time we hear it, like “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Songwriters are very familiar with the chorus hook, but there are other kinds to experiment with, and you will want to discover the power of layering various kinds of hooks in the same song. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ shows you how it’s done.
A motif repeats, but its repetition comes with changes. In another well-known Beatles’ tune, “Hello Goodbye,” we hear the perfect example of a rhythmic motif: a 3-note figure: a short note, followed by two longer ones:
And then for the next line, the long rhythm gets repeated several more times, so that the rhythmic cell of short-long-long gets modified:
That’s a motif in action. The rhythm gets used, developed, changed, but always relates back to the original statement of that motif.
Why is that motif so important? Because it acts like musical glue. It keeps reappearing throughout the song. Some other rhythms that appear can be seen to be modifications of that original rhythm.
Using Chords as Motifs
You can do something similar with chords, and here’s an easy way to do it:
Create a short 3-chord progression that can serve as the main part of a verse melody:
Am Dm Em
That chord progression starts on Am, leaps up a 4th to get to Dm, then moves up one whole tone to get to Em. The motif you’re going to want to try using is the distance those chords move: up a 4th, then up a tone, from the original chord.
So when you create your chorus progression, you might decide to switch from A minor to C major as a key choice. That makes a lot of sense, because a lot of songs in the pop genres move from minor verses to major choruses.
So if you move your progression up to C, and keep the same motif of moving up a 4th and then a tone, you get these chords:
C F G
For song bridges, when a chorus is in a major key, it’s common to have a bridge start in minor. Starting on Am for songs in C major is a common choice, but you might try something different: starting on Dm, for example. If you’re interested in keeping the motif, but are concerned that things will start to sound a little too similar if you keep to the same “up and 4th, then a tone” pattern, try reversing that pattern: down a 4th, then down a tone:
Dm Am G
As I mentioned earlier, the benefit of using this kind of chord progression motif is that it acts as a kind of glue that pulls all sections of your song together and makes them communicate with each other.
And don’t stop with chords; give some thought to other aspects of music that can act as motifs: a melodic idea for your verse that gets reversed in the chorus, for example. Or a rhythm that happens in your backing rhythms that gets replicated in the melody.
Check out the melody of the intro to John Denver’s “Fly Away”, and note how it moves in a reverse direction to what the melody for the verse. That’s a melodic motif in action.
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