You may have heard the word motif before and wondered what it is, and how it might apply to songwriting. It’s a term that’s somewhat similar to hook — and that’s a word you’re probably a lot more familiar with.
A hook is a musical idea that repeats throughout a song, though we often associate it chiefly with the chorus. So the catchy bit of chorus that grabs our attention right away is the chorus hook, and a song can succeed or struggle based on the quality of that hook.
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.
The main feature we all know about hooks is their repetitive nature; it’s not a hook if we don’t hear it many times. And when we hear it, when tend to hear it the same way each time. The instrumental hook that starts Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” doesn’t ever change. Every time we hear it return between verses, it returns sounding exactly the same.
I mention that same-sounding aspect of hooks because that’s one of the most important differences between a hook and a motif.
What exactly is a Motif
I love using Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” as an example of what a motif is, and what it can do to give a song a strong sense of musical cohesion. In “Yesterday”, we keep hearing a short descending musical idea on the words “Yesterday…”, “far away…”, “here to stay…”, and so on.
That little descending figure is a motif. It’s a structural idea. And it often changes over the length of a song. So that descending motif in “Yesterday” happens on different notes, and sometimes the relationship between the notes of the motif will change as well. For example, on the word “yesterday”, it’s a descending major second. On “here to stay”, it’s a descending minor second.
But even though the pitches change, and even the relationships between the pitches change, we still hear the similarity of the figure. And because it happens throughout the entire song, it acts as a kind of musical glue that pulls everything together.
Back in 1980, the Alan Parsons Project recorded their album “The Turn of a Friendly Card.” On that album you’ll find an instrumental track called “The Gold Bug.” That song starts with a whistling melody, but then there is a lengthy layering of several different motifs before the sax solo. The keyboard rhythms really amount to a great demonstration of a rhythmic/melodic motif.
How You Can Use Motifs In Your Songs
It’s quite possible to consider applying motifs to your song after the main part of it has been composed. In other words, once you’ve got the melody, lyrics and accompaniment of your song worked out, you can think about rhythmic interplay and other motivic considerations as a part of the production of the song.
In creating motifs for your instrumental backing, you’ll be thinking of repeating rhythmic ideas that might modify over time, but keep enough of the original shape and intent that it does what a motif is supposed to do: pull everything together.
In that sense, a motif sounds like a musical version of a signature: something people recognize right away.
In Adele’s “Someone Like You”, the piano pattern — the rising and falling arpeggio — is a melodic motif. And in a sense, even though the rhythmic pattern of consecutive 16th notes seems unremarkable, that rhythm is a motif as well. The descending gesture of the melody (“I heard…”) is an important melodic motif.
And as I pointed out with “Yesterday”, a motivic treatment of a melody itself is a great way to give that all-important sense of cohesion and structure to a song. When you create melodies where each phrase shows a rhythmic or melodic similarity to other phrases, audiences feel more compelled to listen.
And that’s the important reason you might use motifs (in addition to, or as opposed to hooks): to compel your listeners to keep wanting to listen. Repetition, whether in a hook or a motif, is one of the most important ways we have as composers of music to entice audiences to stick with our songs.
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