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Music Theory and Practice - Musical Motives or Motifs

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Finding The Motivation

A musical motive (sometimes motif) is the smallest distinguishable idea in music, like how one tile becomes part of the entire floor.
A musical motive (sometimes motif) is the smallest distinguishable idea in music, like how one tile becomes part of the entire floor.

Motivic Development

What Makes A Musical Motive?

A musical motive (sometimes motif) is the smallest distinguishable idea in music. This small idea can be thought as a musical seed that is planted in a main theme (or themes) and then is “watered” and “nurtured” through developmental techniques such as fragmentation, augmentation, inversion, etc. until it “blooms” into a full “bouquet” of an entire piece. These developmental techniques sometimes also called melodic alterations.

Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Op 2, No. 1, Mvt. 1:

The two main motives in Sonata in F minor are the ascending quarter notes that outline the harmony [A] and the dotted quarter note followed by the turn [B].

You can listen to the Sonata in the video and view the score in the pdf, both below.

beethoven sonata 1
Download PDF • 148KB

You can think of a music motive (motif) as a visual art motif, a recurring fragment, theme or

pattern that appears in an artwork. Or, you can think of like a motive for an action, a motivation, a reason for being. To me, a musical motive is a combination of these two ideas. It is both a recurring idea heard in a musical work as well as its reason for being.

Methods of Motivic Development – Melodic Alteration Techniques

Motivic development is taking a small musical idea and turning into a finished composition. In Dutch Clouds, graphic designer Karel Martens took test patterns for a digital printer and used repetitive patterns to create the image of clouds.

1. Closeup of Dutch Clouds by Karel Martens (b. 1939), Digitally Printed Wallpaper (2009)

2. The Full Wall at the Art Institute of Chicago

3. The Entire Work

Repetition, Interval Change Modified Repetition, Rhythmic Change Modified Repetition, and Sequence

Repetition is simply when a composer chooses to simply repeat the motive over again without alterations. This is the most basic form of development. Creating an entire piece of music with simple repetition may be found in folk music, popular songs, and children’s songs from around the world.

Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers

Sometimes a composer will chose to change a melodic interval or rhythmic value or add ornamentation to create a modified repetition.

Sometimes a motive is restated at different pitch levels to create a sequence. A sequence may include modified repetitions.

Many times composers will use a combination of techniques are used together to create a piece. For example, in just the first two measures of Prelude from Cello Suite in G, BWV 1007, there is an exact repetition of the motive, then a modified repetition of the motive. Bach continued to used modified repetitions of the first motive to create a sequence.

Prelude from Cello Suite in G, BWV 1007 by JS Bach

Fragmentation is the division of a motive (or motif) into segments.

Augmentation is the restatement of the motive with doubled note values.

Diminution is the restatement of the motive with halved note values

Inversion is the reflection of the motive across a horizontal plane. It is like a musical version of a reflection in a body of water.

View the pdf below for examples of motivic development techniques.

Motive Development Examples
Download PDF • 46KB

Invention No. 1 in C Major, BWV 772 by JS Bach

Retrograde is the exact reversing of the order of notes. This technique is most commonly in 20th century 12-tone musical compositions. This technique is like a musical palindrome.

Ma Fin est mon Commencement by Guillame de Machaut

Retrograde Inversion is the reflection of the motive across a horizontal plane while the order of the notes is also reversed.

Requiem Canticles by Igor Stravinsky

The motive from Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is one of the clearest, as well as brilliant, examples of motivic development in Western art music. This motive is called the "Fate Motive"because the "da da da dum" rhythm of the original motive resembles the sound of a knock at the door. In Beethoven's case, musicologists and musicians say that Fate themself was knocking to remind him of his impending deafness as he hearing deteriorated. Below is the score for the symphony and a guide to the ways in which Beethoven employed it throughout the four movement work.

Download PDF • 5.94MB

Download PDF • 52KB

Suggested Assignment

Below is the score for Beethoven's Fur Elise, as well as a video of a performance by Lang Lang. View the score and listen and look for the motive(s) that you see and hear throughout. Make a list of them either in a scoring program or on manuscript paper. Then take these motives and modify, repeat, and alter them using any of the techniques we've discussed and create your own piece using Beethoven's seeds and see how it blooms into something that is all your own!

Fur Elise
Download PDF • 222KB


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.



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