Blog Posts Form & Melody Pedagogy

Motive: Beyond Simple Identification

My students frequently don’t “get” what I try to convey for analyzing motive in musical compositions. The challenge is that there are two things that are important for this topic:

  1. That motives can be located and that their transformations can be identified (look! it’s the motive from the beginning of the song! and it’s inverted!).
  2. That motives can be a structural element of music, that they can be used cleverly, and that their appearances can help to bring grace, drama, and “logic” to music.

The first item is fairly easy for me to teach and fairly easy for my students to learn. I introduce a series of terms (transposition, inversion, retrograde, elaboration, truncation/fragmentation, and so forth) and isolate musical motives in a passage of music. If the examples are clear enough, any student can identify a method of transformation.

But the second item on that list is harder; it demands thoughtful musical analysis, making the student look within phrases, across phrases, up and down the musical texture, compare melody to harmony, and more. It’s a real challenge. And I haven’t figured out a great way to make this “testable.” Mostly what I tend to do is give a song in lead-sheet format (Mancini & Mercer’s Moon River and Rodgers & Hart’s Bewitched are favorites) and ask students this question:

Analyze the use of motive in the song Blahblahblah, then summarize your thoughts in a short essay. Always be clear to which musical passage you are referring, making liberal use of references to bar numbers and lyrics to identify musical passages.

Your this essay will be graded according to the following rubric:

  • X points » Clarity of writing; correct use of musical terminology
  • X points » Description/identification of motive(s) and permutations; accuracy of observations; thoroughness of analysis
  • X points » Description of pitch/scale degree relationships of motivic occurrences
  • X points » Description of relationships between motives and underlying harmony (includes distinctive creation of non-chord tones)
  • X points » Description of rhythmic placement of motivic occurrences in context of phrases

What’s the right answer?

SO — to do well on my quiz is to demonstrate the ability to engage a piece of music and express what is interesting about its melodic construction, paying special attention to its use of motives. The song I’ll use here for illustration is Van Heusen & Burke’s Imagination. [ audio | sheet music ]. I’ll just be looking at the ballad’s refrain (starting with the lyric “Imagination is funny,” not its verse (which is often not sung).


Remember that a motive tends to be a very small melodic gesture — just a few notes. If there is a particularly distinctive figure that is easily split in two, see if both parts of it are developed independently in the course of the music. In the case of Imagination, the principal motive would be the five notes that accompany the lyric “Imagination.” Notice that it includes a 1 1/2 beat pickup of ascending eighth notes and two repeated notes. Subsequent occurrences of the motive adapt the pick-up, either to a single quarter note (pickup to bar 2), ascending triplet quarters (in bar 3), or else it is left out altogether (the repeated-note motive in bar 5 stands alone). Because of this, I might argue that the motive is simply two repeated notes that “belong to” the first beat of a bar (the strong metric emphasis is distinctive here), and that its pickup is flexible and even disposable… yet significant enough to mention.

Some of my students would point out that the second note of our two-note motive has different durations at different times. It’s usually a half note (“ImaginaTION is funNY”), but is a dotted half note in bar 4 (“sunNY”) and a quarter in bars 5 (“makes A”) and 6 (“hoNEY”). Don’t worry about it – that’s an insignificant by-product of how the melody moves onward at each of these points. The most important thing is where the notes start relative to the meter (one beats 1 and 2), not how long the latter note extends. The students who point this out will invariably call the change in note length “augmentation” or “diminution,” which is not correct. Augmentation and diminution are extreme (and uncommon!) effects that affect more than just a single note of an otherwise rhythmically unaltered pattern.

It’s not necessary to repeat the analysis for bars 9-16; these simply repeat the first eight bars.

The B section (the “middle eight”) of a tune like this often doesn’t share motivic connections to the first, but in Imagination, it does. Notice the repeated quarters on beats 1 and 2 of bars 18 and 19, then again in 22, and the similarity of bars 22-23 to bars 3-4, with the distinctive triplet quarter figure.

The B section also has a motive not shared with A: the “dipping” gesture that is found in bars 18 (“gentle touch”), 19 (“then a kiss”), 20 (“and then”), and 22 (“imagination”). These descending leaps are made especially distinctive in two ways, either by leaping from a dissonant “escape tone” (as in bars 18 and 19) or by leaping a dissonant tritone (as in bars 20 and 22). The last occurrence of this motive is in bar 24: the leap from C to F-sharp (“oh well”), which is emphasized by leaping to the first beat of the measure rather than occupying the same weak middle-of-bar metric location as all the others.

The return of the A section is much like its first occurrence in bars 1-8, but it ends slightly differently. Leading to this new ending is a descending three-note figure on beats 2-4 of bar 32 (an important place, because it begins an extension of the classic “32-bar song form”). This figure is a version of the three-note pickup to bar 1, but in augmentation and inversion.

If you are asked about SCALE DEGREE and/or MELODIC STRUCTURE…

“Melodic structure” is a term I use in class, and other professors may have different names for it, such as “skeleton,” “outline,” or “structural melody.” The basic point is to identify simple patterns (scale-steps, mostly) between non-consecutive melodic tones that reveal an underlying “basic” melodic shape.

While melodic structure isn’t limited to motivic music, motives often help to create and make clear melodic structure through their adaptations. In Imagination, the “goal” note of each motive — the repeated pitches — is carefully placed to reveal a stepwise pattern:

The B section has a more elaborate melodic skeleton… no need to analyze it here, but if this was a classroom activity or an essay judged on completeness, it should be included.

It’s common to examine the scale-degrees of these “reduced” melodies, especially because the scale-degree of cadence-tones so strongly affects melodic closure. In this case, the melodic skeleton begins on scale degree 3 (I’ll use the common “caret” symbol to indicate scale degree, such as “^3” for scale-step 3), arcs upwards a third before descending to ^2. Alone, that is not so interesting, but the next step is to consider how this relates to other phrases. We might expect, for instance, that the succeeding phrase will provide the closure that was denied in the first. It doesn’t, though; the next phrase also ends on ^2. Indeed, there is a very consistent avoidance of closure at the end of every single phrase of this song — phrase 3 ends in bar 24 on #^2, and the last phrase has ^3 in bar 31 (its “expected” cadence-point), where sly harmonic changes delay the cadence and extend the phrase an extra four bars. ^1 doesn’t arrive until bar 35, the first time it is ever heard over a tonic harmony.

If you are asked about RHYTHM…

It is commonly understood that “rhythm” equals note durations, and when I ask about rhythm, students who didn’t follow me in class tend to write about the eighth notes of the pickup bar and so forth. This is not interesting, and not what I’m hoping for students to describe.

Rhythm is probably the most difficult aspect to articulate, and it’s often the parameter about which there is the least to write. But good points can be made about music that has interesting motivic placement. It is interesting to note how a phrase’s “pacing” can be affected by how often its main motive is used. In this case, the double-note figure appears on the first beat of each of the first six bars before disappearing as the phrase approaches its cadence. This lends the A section a much greater sense of or “insistence” than the B section, which has its primary motives placed in much weaker metric locations (the “distinctive” leap moves into beat 3 in most instances) and has a freer approach to its first and fifth bars, starting each sub-phrase with ascending eighths that don’t begin until the second beat of their respective bars.

If you are asked about HARMONY…

Regarding connections between motive and harmony, two possibilities are ripe for examination: 1) that a motive is repeated at the same pitch level (possibly with some chromatic alteration) with different harmony than before, and 2) a motive is repeated at a different pitch level, implying a different harmony from before. Imagination doesn’t yield great excitement in this area, but there are a couple of places of interest. Compare bars 8 and 16, the cadence-points for the first two phrases. Both phrases end on F (^2), but have very different harmonies. The harmony in bar 8 is ii – V7 in E-flat Major, so the F works as a chord tone in both harmonies. In bar 16, however, the harmony is ii – V7 in A-flat Major; F works as the fifth of Bbm7, but as a hanging dissonance when the harmony shifts to Eb (my lead-sheet accommodates this by calling the chord Eb9).

In bar 31, the melody rests on G, expected to be the third of an Eb Major tonic harmony. Instead, the phrase is extended through a deceptive resolution to G7 (V7/vi), which moves to its “tritone substitute” chord of Db7 (the melody’s G is now a #11), eventually onward to complete the phrase with a perfect authentic cadence in bar 36.

If you are asked about ACCOMPANIMENT…

…you’ll be out of luck with Imagination, since we’re studying a lead-sheet that doesn’t include accompaniment. If you’re studying classical music, you will probably find much to describe if it’s the right sort of piece. J.S. Bach’s Invention in C Major is the go-to piece for beginning motive study, and you’ll especially want to be on the lookout for how motives that initiated in melody become important (or hidden) parts of the bass or middle-ground.