Music Theory

What Is A Motif In Music?

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Written by Samuel Chase

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In music, we often look for ways to analyze different sections of a song or a symphony, but we need to make this process manageable. For example, taking a whole movement of a symphony or an entire song as one entity can be overwhelming, as that’s often 4 – 15 minutes of music. On the other hand, analyzing each individual note is also overwhelming because there’s just too many notes in a single song.

In this sense, we need ways to study manageable sections of music that we can use for music theory or analysis. The motif is one such section, and in this article we will be discussing what exactly motifs are in music.

Definition of Motif

In music, a motif (also sometimes written as motive) is the smallest unit of a piece of music that contains some kind of thematic or structural identity.

Thematic identity just means that it can be related to a theme – and a theme is the fundamental idea of a specific piece, one upon which the music is based. 

Let’s break down that definition a bit.

A motif is the smallest unit that contains thematic material – this means it’s not an entire song or movement, but it’s also not a single note.

Just like a single letter (“P” or “G” for example) can’t communicate the meaning of a sentence, a note has no inherent thematic value.

It only gains that value when placed around other notes, be it in a melody or a chord progression. 

Take this note here:

Without any context it’s simply an E.

We don’t even know if it’s in a minor or major chord.

However, when we put it in a short melody, then we get a motif (in this case, it’s the opening to “Hedwig’s Theme” from the Harry Potter film score by John Williams): 

“Hedwig’s Theme” from the Harry Potter film score by John Williams

Melodic, Harmonic, and Rhythmic Motifs

Most motifs, like the one shown above, are melodic.

A melodic motif is one that sets out a specific melodic formula, or sequence.

For example, let’s take the above motif, from the Harry Potter theme.

It is only the first few bars of the melody, but we know it’s enough to be a motif because that sequence is repeated multiple times after.

Not necessarily the exact same notes, but the general principle of the motif is followed and repeated. 

Listen to the whole piece here: 

“Hedwig’s Theme” by John Williams

After this opening motif, the same melodic formula is followed three more times throughout the rest of the melody, until a new motif and melody comes in at 0:17.

Another famous John Williams melodic motif is this one from the “Raiders Theme” from Raiders of the Lost Ark

“Raiders Theme” from Raiders of the Lost Ark by John Williams

Listen to that piece here and note how many times this melodic formula is followed throughout the whole melody.

“Raiders Theme” from Raiders of the Lost Ark by John Williams

Harmonic Motifs

Different to a melodic motif is a harmonic motif, in which a motif is produced by a series of chords or intervals rather than a specific melodic formula.

For example, Hans Zimmer’s “Time” from the soundtrack to the film Inception is just a repetition of 4 chords. Here are the chords, which Zimmer uses as a harmonic motif throughout the piece.

“Time” from Inception by Hans Zimmer

Listen to the track here and take note of the repeated harmonic motif. 

“Time” from Inception by Hans Zimmer

Other harmonic motifs include the Plagal Cadence, which is a cadence that ends with subdominant – tonic motion (IV – I) rather than dominant – tonic.

It is so common among old hymns and church music that it carries with it that thematic connotation whenever it is used now. 

Rhythmic Motifs

As you might have guessed, rhythmic motifs are based off of specific rhythms of the notes in a melody.

A very famous example of a rhythmic motif comes from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. 

The motif of three short notes followed by a long note has become known as the “Fate Motif”.

Listen to how many different ways Beethoven uses this simple idea of three short notes and one long in the first movement of his symphony.

He uses it 13 times within the first 20 bars of the piece!

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

Another very famous rhythmic motif comes from the rock band Queen, with the simple boom – boom – clap from “We Will Rock You”.

“We Will Rock You” by Queen

Leitmotifs in Film Scores

Motifs are nowadays most commonly found in film music, where they are called leitmotifs.

Even in this article, we’ve quoted three different film scores that make use of leitmotifs. 

A leitmotif in a film is slightly different than a regular motif in music – whereas the musical motif is only referencing itself and the melody/harmony that it is a part of, the filmic leitmotif is referencing some other aspect of the film, like a character or a place or a specific emotion.

Let’s look at John Williams’ work in the Star Wars movies to more fully understand this. 

The opening main Star Wars leitmotif is typically associated with Luke Skywalker, or when the good guys are victorious against the bad guys.

It is heard many times throughout the films, and almost always when either Luke or one of the other good guys saves the day.

Star Wars Theme – John Williams

The “Force” leitmotif is heard whenever someone (usually Luke or Leia) use the Force, or when it is mentioned in conversation. 

The Force Theme – John Williams

Darth Vader has his own leitmotif that plays whenever he is on screen or when others are talking about him.

This piece is called “The Imperial March”. 

The Imperial March – John Williams

This list could go on for ages.

Every main character of the series – Luke, Han, Leia, Anakin, Obi-Wan, Rey, Kylo Ren, the Emperor – all have their own themes, as well as groups of people like the Rebel Alliance, the Empire, the First Order, and others.

In most films you would see at the cinema that have a score to them, there will usually be at least one or two leitmotifs associated with the main characters, settings, or themes. 

Concluding with Motifs in Music

We hope that has given you a basic idea about the use of motifs in music.

They’re usually very small, no more than a few notes in length, but they carry with them lots of thematic weight.

In Beethoven’s case, many of his pieces are literally built almost entirely from small motifs.

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Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.