Peter Gabriel - Sledgehammer

How Much of a Role Does ‘Motif’ Play in Your Songwriting?

There is no question that repetition is one of the most important aspects of the structure of good music. Music where nothing repeats sounds confusing to us. We use repetition as a way of understanding where a song is going.

And when it comes to repetition, it’s likely that the hook will jump immediately to your mind. A hook is a repeating figure, often found in the chorus, but, depending on the type of hook, can appear in any section of a song.

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If you were to make a list of things that repeat within a song, you’d probably include:

  • the repetitious nature of the basic drum beat;
  • repeating verse melodies;
  • repeating chorus melodies, chords and lyrics;
  • repeating phrases within a song’s section;
  • repeating patterns in the rhythm guitar and other instrumental components.

But there is another vital aspect of repetition that is worth attention for songwriters, and it’s taking a look at the role that motif plays in good songwriting.

A motif is a short fragment of music that gets repeated and used throughout a song. It often changes and develops as the song proceeds, but will maintain enough similarity to the original presentation of the fragment that it helps add structural strength to everything.

I’ve often used the short descending melody Paul McCartney used in his song “Yesterday”, and how that descending idea keeps happening over and over:

  • “Yes-ter-day”
  • “far away”
  • “here today”
  • “Suddenly”
  • “used to be”
  • …and so on

That’s a great example of a melodic motif. For many times that the descending figure happens, it’s a little different, but similar enough that it pulls all those melodic fragments together. An important aspect of why we use motifs comes from that aspect of change and development. A motif repeats, but, while a hook keeps repeating pretty much in the same way each time, a motif keeps modifying and developing as it goes, as suits the song.

In U2’s “With or Without You“, there are important melodic motifs: an initial melodic idea that moves up at the end (“See the stone set in your eyes”), followed by a similar melody that reverses that direction and moves down at the end (“See the thorn twist in your side”).

If you listen to the instrumental performance of most songs, you’ll see that motif plays an important role. Repeating instrumental ideas act as musical glue that adds to the structure of the music. In Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer“, Tony Levin’s arpeggiated bass, for example, is an important structural element.

That bass line is a great example of another important characteristic of song motifs: they do their most important work in the background. While a hook demands attention up front, a motif is something that will usually escape the notice of most people. Most would not notice Tony Levin’s ascending arpeggios in the bass line. But if he played every phrase differently, with different bass ideas each time, that aspect of structural integrity would be lost.

Practically any and every good song makes good use of motifs. So take a listen to the last few songs you’ve written, and think about the repeating aspects of those songs, and try to identify which parts repeat without change (acting like a hook), and the bits that modify slightly over time, like melodic and rhythmic ideas, acting like a motif.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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