Motif: A Recurring Musical Idea

Posted on September 19, 2022

The term motif is well known in many different contexts and art forms. It has its own special meaning in music, especially classical music. Read more about motifs and their different uses in music as well as other forms of art.

What is a motif in music?

In the context of music, a motif is simply a short musical idea, longer than a single note but shorter than an entire section. Although they can vary in length, motifs need to be long enough in order to be recognizable and to carry some kind of significance or thematic value. You can also make a distinction between melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic motifs.

The use of motifs is typical for longer compositions. For example, in classical music, the motif needs to be repeated throughout the entire piece. A longer composition also allows the motif to be developed as it is repeated by adding elements to it or changing it in some way. Just like any art form, a piece of music can have multiple motifs in it, signifying different things.

Motif examples

Good examples of motifs in music can be found in film scores where the same theme is used repeatedly and developed throughout the film. As the runtime of a film usually lasts from 90 minutes to sometimes up to three hours, there is plenty of time for a musical theme or idea to develop and be repeated. Good examples of well-known musical motifs in cinema and television can be found in the James Bond main theme, the shark’s theme in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and Laura Palmer’s theme in the television series Twin Peaks.

What is a leitmotif?

In music, a leitmotif is a specific kind of motif as it has a single point of reference. A leitmotif can be associated with a character in a film and be played whenever that particular character enters a scene. A good example of a leitmotif associated with a character occurs during the Imperial March in the Star Wars films. This particular leitmotif plays often when Darth Vader is on-screen.

Leitmotifs can be used to refer to a location in a story as well. In The Lord of the Rings movies, a familiar motif plays during many scenes that take place in the Shire. Similarly, leitmotifs can refer to some thematic elements of the story as well, such as when the composer wants to emphasize the feeling of danger in a particular scene.

Any recurring musical theme or idea can be classified as a motif even if it doesn’t refer to a particular character, place, or narrative theme, so you can think of leitmotif as a specific kind of motif.

How are motifs used in other art forms?

As mentioned, motifs aren’t used solely in music; they can be found in other art forms too. However, no matter the art form, motifs are, by definition, repeated multiple times and usually have some kind of thematic significance to them. In literature, motifs are ideas, such as themes, characters, and textual elements, that are repeated. They help make connections between different parts of the story and have some kind of symbolic significance. In visual arts, such as painting, motifs can be patterns or visual elements that are repeated. For example, an ornamental figure or shape used in architecture or a painting is a motif.

Learn about musical motifs and other terminology

Level up your knowledge of music terminology and check out our Musician’s Glossary. We have listed even more useful musical terms to expand your musical vocabulary.

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