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Developing Motives (or How To Write a Symphony With Only Four Notes)

This post is part of a series called Songwriting & Composing: From Inspiration to Execution.
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Many beginning composers are under the impression that the great masterpieces of music came spilling out of the composer's mind in a flash of genius, complete and perfect in their entirety. They then proceed to follow this imagined "model" of composing by writing long and through composed pieces, thinking that if they focus on the "big picture" their music will be grand and have impact. Their pieces instead often turn out to be rambling, misdirected, boring and/or difficult to comprehend. In this tutorial we will learn how to create and develop motives and study the use of motives in real music.

What most of these beginning composers fail to appreciate is that even the longest and most epic masterpieces are actually constructed from the smallest and simplest of elements: the motive.

By using the motive as the essential architectural element of your composition you can create the perfect balance of comprehension and variety.

What is a Motive

"Consciously used, the motive should produce unity, relationship, coherence, logic, comprehension and fluency." - Arnold Shoenberg, "Fundamentals of Musical Composition"

The first thing we need to understand is what a motive actually is.

Simply put, a motive can be thought of as the smallest recognizable musical idea. It can be as small as only two notes and is usually not much longer than a few beats.


The most famous motive in all of Western music is this one:

Those 4 simple notes are recognizable, interesting and full of potential. So what are the defining aspects of this motive?

Rhythm: Most striking of this particular motive is the rhythm. 3 pickup notes slamming into a strong downbeat. It's very important to pay attention to that little rest, because the fact that our first note is on a weak beat is a defining factor.

Intervals: Notice that there is only a single interval, that of a major third down. As we'll see, usually the direction of an interval is a more defining factor than the actual distance of the interval itself.

Harmony: Another interesting aspect of this motive is that it's harmonically ambiguous. There are only two pitches, G and Eb. In triadic music G and Eb could be from a C minor triad or they could be from an Eb major triad. This ambiguity gives the motive some flexibility.


As another example let's look at the most famous motive in all of film music:

This simple two note motive can instantly strike fear in the hearts of beach-goers everywhere! Let's again examine the different aspects that make up this motive:

Rhythm: With only two notes it might seem like this motive doesn't have much going for it rhythmically, but it's really important that we pay attention to every detail. Notice that the first note is on a strong beat, with the second note being more just lifted up. If you were to move your head with the pulse of the rhythm you would unconsciously move down for the first note and then up for the second.

Also notice how the first note is longer, again adding to the feeling of emphasis on the downbeat.

Although the motive is used in quarter note repetition, it is most famously remembered for the rests in between uses (such as in the example above). Silence can be just as powerful a rhythmic force as noise.

Intervals: The only interval here is the minor second up. The short distance of the interval adds to the feeling of tension and unease. It is so small and tight that is feels almost like scratching, as opposed to a large interval like a 5th that would feel expansive and open.

Harmony: The interval of a minor second is harmonically dissonant. Because E is the first note and on the strong beat, we generally hear E as the tonic. That F natural then is a dissonant pitch, borrowed from a dark mode such as Phrygian or Locrian. The motive doesn't have to spell out an entire chord to express a dark harmonic idea.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Let's look at one more motive before moving on to creating and developing our own. This example is the "Ark Theme" from Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Rhythm: The rhythm of this motive is characterized by a long note follow by two short notes. Also notice that the last note is short, making it clear that it belongs with the first two notes and is not acting as a pickup to the next measure.

Here's what it would sound like if the C was a pickup:

Instead the last note is clearly connected to the first two.

Intervals: We have two intervals this time, a descending minor 2nd and a descending tritone. The descent of a minor 2nd is mysterious and dark. The descending tritone, while also foreign and mysterious, is wider and gives us a greater sense of space. We're only covering the total distance of a perfect 5th but notice how this motive feels much larger than the Jaws theme.

Harmony: Although it is the shortest note and on a weak beat, the last pitch of C feels like the tonic. This is probably because of the overall distance of G to C, but also it is a place of rest compared to the tension between the G and F#. If C is our tonic then we are spelling out some sort of C chord. Although we don't have a 3rd to clearly define a triad, the dark character of the F# suggests that this chord is probably C minor.

How to Write a Motive

OK so we've seen what a motive is: a short musical idea. Next is figuring out how to write motives of our own. This is actually probably the easiest part of the entire tutorial: just find something that works!

Writing a short motive does not require any kind of divine intervention, just a bit of experimentation.

Pick an interval and play around with it:

A major 3rd:

A minor 7th:

Pick a rhythm and play around with it:


Dotted 8th notes:

Choose a chord and find different ways to play with the chord tones:

Minor triad:

Diminished 7th chord:

Notice that the verb I keep using is play. There are not rules for what you have to do. You're only writing a couple of notes, don't think so hard and just do it. And don't worry if they feel small and insignificant, we'll go through and pick out some favorites in just a moment, and then we'll see how your seemingly small insignificant motive can spawn a million ideas.

The one thing I will strongly urge you to do is write down or record every idea you come up with. Ideally write your ideas out with pencil and paper (if you were born after 1992 send me an e-mail and I'll explain what that is), but I'll accept that you can write them into your sequencer or notation software. You could even set up a MIDI track and hit record to keep track of your improvisation and noodling around.

The reason I suggest the archaic idea of pencil and paper is that your ideas become much more tangible when you have to physically write them out. They become real and can be more inspiring and thought provoking than just pixels on a screen. Beethoven used to carry around a small notebook everywhere he went, sketching out ideas and developing his motives even on a long walk through the woods.

After you've come up with a substantial number of ideas, it's time to go back and choose favorites. A "substantial number" just means that you've experimented for long enough to generate some ideas. I'm sure of the 30 examples above I can find something I like.

After going through the different ideas from above I've chosen the very last motive as the one I'm going to develop. It's pretty typically to take this many ideas and sketches before any good ideas start showing up.

Now let's work on the processes of "developing" this motive into a catalog of potential uses.

How to Develop a Motive

The way to develop a motive is to expand upon, change, reverse, or otherwise play with the elements of rhythm, interval and harmony.

Note: Be careful in your development that you don't stray so far from the original motive that it's no longer recognizable. Then it becomes less like a variation more like a totally different idea.

Let's take our motive through a variety of developments, starting with rhythm.

Developing Rhythm

As I mentioned above, if you develop your idea too far it can become too unique and no longer a recognizable variation. The most important place to be careful about doing this is rhythm, because the rhythm is usually the most defining aspect of a motive. That being said there are still many ways you can vary the rhythm of a motive without altering it's inherent character.

Shorten or lengthen different notes:

Repeat notes:

Shift notes to different beats:

Change the meter:

Developing Intervals

Preserve the direction but change the distance:

Preserve the distance but change the direction:

Add passing notes, appoggiaturas, etc:

Developing Harmony

Change the character of the harmony (eg. major to minor):

Change the implied chord:

From all of this you can see that my one little motive was developed into 50 different variations. And I could keep on going! There is more potential material in there than I could ever exploit for a composition, but now I have plenty of ideas for keeping things consistent (logically related to my primal motive) but interesting (variations).

Examples of Development

Let's look at a few ways other composers have developed their motives.

Indiana Jones

Here is the opening phrase of the Indiana Jones theme:

This whole phrase is built from one motive and three variations.

First, the initial motive. It's defining characteristics are the dotted 8th and 16th note pickup, and three stepwise intervals into an upward leap of a 4th:

For the first variation, Williams makes two changes to the original motive. The first is that he's shifted everything down a step (but keeping with the key of F major). The second is that he's made the third note longer, cutting out the fourth note in the process:

The next variation maintains the rhythm of the original. The stepwise figure has been moved up to C and the leap has been expanded from a 4th to a tritone:

The last variation of this short phrase takes the stepwise pattern up another step to D, and then the second part of the motive replaces the leap with a simple quarter note climb (identical in intervallic shape to our already present stepwise climb):

The same motive is used 4 times, but it is never used exactly the same way twice. This is a perfect example of variety within conformity.

Lord of the Rings

The Shire theme from Howard Shore's "Lord of the Rings" Score begins with the following motive:

With just a few little developments, Shore turns this motive into an entire phrase. First he reverses the order of the three stepwise climbing notes so that they step down (b). Then he repeats that entire idea with two modifications: he expands the distance of the intervals and he slows down rhythm of the descending steps. Finally he repeats the descending idea at a faster pace.

With just a few small developments Shore turns a four note motive into a sixteen note phrase.

Longer Motives

Often a composition will be based on a motive that is long enough to be broken down into two or three parts. Although the entire motive could be considered a single idea, the little figures can also provide for inspiration and development in their own right.

Memoirs of a Geisha

"Sayuri's Theme" from Memoirs of a Geisha is a beautiful example of a motive that is really built from two ideas.

This is really constructed from two parts:

A stable and rhythmically simple idea starting on the downbeat:

And a contrasting, more rhythmically active idea:

John Williams develops this theme by changing the intervals but keeping the rhythm intact:

This rhythmic pattern is used 4 times, with variations in pitch, to create the entire A section of the theme.

Later on in the score he develops this motive in a different way, but again keeps the theme clearly recognizable:

In another place in the score he takes only the second small figure of that motive and develops it into it's own idea:

If you've ever wondered how a film composer can use only a handful of themes over and over in a score without them become boring, this concept of development is the answer.

Imperial March

One of the greatest bad guy themes of all time is the Imperial March from Star Wars. Let's look at how this entire theme is constructed from a simple motive that can be broken into two figures.

First the main motive which we all know and love:

Notice that it's built from two ideas:

Three repeated notes (a):

And the rhythmic arpeggio (b):

The first phrase is constructed simply by stating a and b, repeating b, and then repeating that whole thing with changes in pitch.

The second phrase may be slightly less obvious, but if we look for them we can find that a and b are really the only two ideas present, with some modifications:

And of course he finishes the theme off by repeating the second phrase, only this time with a more complete ending:

Developing Motives into Compositions

As you should be understanding by now, and as we just saw with the Imperial March, a simple motive is all you need to create an entire theme and from there an entire composition.

How to come up with and develop these motives is as far as this tutorial is going to take us. In a future tutorial I'll expand further on how to take that motive and turn it into a composition using the concepts of phrases, sentences, periods and on into the larger musical forms.

For now you should focus on coming up with the critical seedlings and putting them through their paces with creative development. Only then will you have the necessary materials to expand into writing a coherent and dramatic composition.

Beethoven's 5th

The last thing I want to leave you with is a return to Beethoven's 5th Symphony. I want you to listen to the first movement in it's entirety (if you don't have 8 minutes to invest into listening to Beethoven then you should get out of this business now!).

Armed with your new expertise of motives I want you to pay attention to every repetition, variation and development of the familiar four note idea. You might just be shocked by how much material Beethoven gets out of those four simple notes!

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