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Motif in Music

Early History Of The Motif, Structural Uses Of A Motif, Bibliography

A motif is a small but recognizable musical unit. The motif might consist merely of a series of pitches or a distinctive rhythm, or it might be harmonically conceived; quite often, pitch and rhythm are combined in a motif to create a discrete melodic fragment. No matter what its constituent elements, the motif needs to be repeated before it can be recognized as a unit. The repetition may be nearly continuous, as in the case of an ostinato—a short motif constantly repeated throughout a section of a composition—or the recurrence may be reserved for significant points in the structure of a work. (A form thus linked is often described as cyclical.) A motif needs to have clear boundaries, which might be established by immediately repeating the motif (as in the "Hallelujah" chorus in George Frideric Handel's Messiah, 1741), by placing a rest or pause after the motif (as in the beginning of Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, 1807), or by following the motif with contrasting material before repeating it. Although motifs vary in length, they are customarily only a portion of a complete melody.

Many motifs recur in note-for-note repetition, but a motif may be recognized even when modified. The modifications may involve rhythmic alterations (such as augmentation and diminution) and various sorts of melodic changes (including altered intervals or additional ornamentation) as well as retrograde (reversed) presentations or inversions, in which ascending pitches are substituted for descending pitches or vice versa. Sequential treatment, in which the motif is repeated at successively higher or lower pitch levels, is very common during transitional passages within large-scale structures, especially while the tonal focus is changing rapidly.

There is little consistency in terminology when discussing motifs. Some prefer the Anglicized motive, which, like motif, is derived from the Latin motus, the past participle of movere (to move). Other analysts use words such as figure, subject, clause, pattern, and segment. Both Western and non-Western cultures have terms for specialized motifs, such as leitmotifs, mottoes, head motifs, and the like.

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