A motif in music is a short, often thematic phrase within a piece of music that appears more than once, giving the listener a sense of familiarity. A similar phrase called a musical cell is a very short rhythmic or melodic design, where multiple cells can often come together to make a musical motif. Some people like to refer to this phrase as a motive, where both terms are both derived from the Latic word "motus", which means to move.
Motifs can work in a variety of different musical settings, including musicals and film scores. While it's most common to repeat the phrase in the same way when reintroducing motifs, composers often make small modifications to motifs to fit a slightly different mood or section of the overall work in a very impressive way, where listeners can still recognize the theme.
These short musical phrases are commonly broken into three categories: melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic motifs. Melodic motifs are most common, where there is usually a short yet recognizable succession of notes that a composer will add to the score when it feels appropriate. Rhythmic motifs can also take place in the percussion section with a similar effect, but it really needs to be unique to stand out. And similar to melodic motifs, short harmonic ideas can also take place when you add a harmony note or full chord to a melodic motif each time.
Legendary motifs often appeared in many famous works from renowned composers, including Claude Debussy, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Handel. Handel's Messiah may be one of the easiest examples I can think of, where the chords sang on the word "Hallelujah" is sung in a harmonic motif, often appearing over and over. Most people can recognize that song just by hearing that very small phrase.
A motif that sets the theme for a particular character, situation, or idea in film media is called a leitmotif. You often see movies with composers that have a great deal of talent for making these motifs stand out and get you engrossed in the production. A popular example is the horror movie "Jaws" motif, which features two simple notes and signifies that a shark is on the prowl and about to tear somebody up!
Similar to short and recognizable phrases in film, you will often find motifs in musicals and operas. These both work well for motifs because the score or overall works are long enough that themes can often reappear and not feel like they are overdone since so many other musical ideas have been introduced. The popular musical Hamilton. for example, features many musical motifs that repeat melodic phrases from standout phrases like "Rise up" and "Not throwing away my shot", which are more like musical callbacks.
You won't hear motifs much when it comes to pop music culture, especially in the digital age. The main reason is those pop songs are more often played in a single format and mixed in with other songs from other artists. Singles on their own are too short to try to add motifs in over and over, which is why they usually just rely on a hook/chorus that is 8 or 16 bars long to serve as a longer and more familiar phrase than a short motif, which is often more like a measure long.
Although it's hard to do with singles, a motif can be introduced and brought back multiple times throughout an album release for a band or artist. This works well for albums that are created to tell a complete story and not as much for releases that are more like a compilation of songs thrown together and unrelated.
If you are having trouble recognizing a musical motif, chances are that the fault is on the composer and not your ear. Most composers aim to make motifs so recognizable that a tone-deaf person will still be able to discern a short theme if it gets repeated. Some composers, especially in more complicated genres like jazz and classical music, may try hiding certain motifs within their works. In this case, it's probably best to go for the sheet music so you can point it out visually as well as by ear.
As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 200 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, features, nursery rhymes, and DJ drops, she currently spends her time engulfed in creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Her most recent creative collaborations include work with PBS Sound Field, Tribe of Noise, and the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Check out Yona’s latest music releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share the music if you like it!
If you are ever in need of singer, songwriter or song producer services for your music project or brand, see what Yona Marie can offer you on her song services page. As an Amazon Associate, Yona Marie earns from qualifying purchases. Amazon and other affiliate products are recommended to genuinely help readers and keep this site up and running as well.