Motif (music)

In the musical form of teaching, the term motif refers to ( from Latin: movere = move; spätlat: motivus = movable. ) Is the smallest meaningful unit supporting musical. It is a typical, out upscale and memorable structure that is as characteristic tone sequence for a composition or its form parts of meaning and can be perceived by the listener so.

A subject can already consist of two tones, such as rising fourth ( hunting motifs), or as a descending minor third ( cuckoo motif). The delimitation of the subject is mostly made ​​audible by phrasing cuts, breaks, and other turning points.

A motive has the power to become independent: it may be repeated in the course of composition, transferred to other pitches, altered or combined with other designs. That is why the subject is to be regarded as distinct from an accompanying figure or ornament as a melodic germ cell of a musical development in a plant.

In the classical period the subject is by its diverse processing central part of the composition. Haydn developed this way of composing more critical and thus became the founder of the " classical" music. Ludwig van Beethoven began the transformation and combination of motifs as the elemental form forming element. Almost all continue this tradition to him following composers such as Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner and Mahler. Also in the Dodecaphony the motivic- thematic work plays a central role.

Definition of the term

In musicology, the concept of the subject of the individual analysis of musical works or practices of individual composers used. The exact definition of a motif of other musical units - figure, phrase, period ( set) and theme - but it is often difficult for the listener of a work and not clearly defined in music theory.

A motif is a striking melodic element most clearly audible distinguishable from other sound sequences of a composition. Transitions, accompaniments, ornaments and style -related phrases have a lower individual shape and are therefore less characteristic. They often have a purely compositional function, that is: They illustrate the harmony and melodic way, often as a chord of refraction, or accompanying a parent melody. You can therefore be assigned rather to the concept of the figure. A typical example is the so-called " Alberti bass ": broken triads, which often appear as piano sonatas by Mozart. Such figures do not form an independent, equal standing to the tune composition material. They are therefore considered essential to be less in the musical contemplation of a piece.

The next larger melodic sense unit on the scene that 's the phrase. This is usually delimited by pauses that give a singer opportunity to wind down. It consists of several, often of two melodic motifs combined with each other. If the single motif even longer, it may coincide with a phrase.

Phrases turn called periods combine to so ( sentence ): musical " sentences ", which in turn combine to create a "theme" and this formally - in the classical mostly symmetrical - stroke units are broken, while a single subject is not congruent with a clock period must be.

A theme refers to a larger musical sense unit, which consists of several motives, phrases and periods. The theme is often the beginning of a piece (in one piece cycle: a " set " ) presented and then creates a kind of the most important " statement" of a piece, to which another form parts relate. Therefore, motif, phrase, period and subject behave about as each other such as " word ", " subset ", " set " and " verse " in the bound language of a poem. So the issue is, the wider definition, but its content is based on the motives and periods.


The musical analysis subdivides motives sometimes again in Part motives and thus contradicts actually their definition as " musical smallest unit of meaning ." The concept of motive group refers to a collection of similar or derived from each other motifs. In the musical analysis to identify a motive hierarchy often, not always consistent in type, alphanumeric characters are used (for example: A, B, A1, A ', A2, B2, Aa1 Bb2, etc.).

Manifestations of the subject

One can distinguish between primary melodic, rhythmic and harmonic stamped motifs. Of course, the three components can also be equivalent, such as in the above example, note from Beethoven Opus 10 No. 1 or in the Sonata " Pathetique " Op 13, bars 1-2.

Characterized primary rhythmically, for example the opening bars of Beethoven 's 5th Symphony or the rhythmic motif of death in Schubert's song "Death and the Maiden". Here one example each melodic and harmonic motifs:

Finally, the music theory distinguishes so-called Fort spin drying motives of development designs. Both are based on the linear melody. In Baroque music the Fort spin drying motif is common, the rare forms focal points and symmetry afraid. On the initial momentum of the first figure, the melody line is usually continued without major interruption until a new theme emerges. Because of the continual juxtaposition and combination of the melodic lines, it is often very difficult to distinguish the individual motifs from each other. It follows their tendency to self-dissolution in figures or second voices that makes them rather unsuitable for motivic- thematic work. The composition principle of the Baroque is geared more towards the " counterpoint " and polyphony ( polyphony equivalent ) so that melody and harmony penetrate each other.


The development motive, however, prevails in the homophonic oriented music of the Classical and Romantic periods. It distinguishes itself from clear, tends to constant metric focus and symmetry. It remains in its substance obtained and is therefore more suitable for processing ( example: the second movement of the symphony with the bang of Joseph Haydn ).

In the history of music has often tried to label motifs according to their emotional content, their movement behavior or their interval structure and set to a specific expressive content. This was particularly the Baroque figure teaching and doctrine of affections, who knew about a hundred to anlehnende to the rhetoric character names. Furthermore, the theme with an out of the music level of meaning ( feeling person) as " idee fixe " were in the program music of the 19th century combined ( Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz ).

The folk song was of course influenced by the motif in all eras of music. Here are just some of the most frequently encountered motif names are:

Sighing motif (Latin = suspiratio ) for rising or falling, usually derivative -like Sekundmotive,


Cross motif: Consisting of four tones, one connects the first to the fourth grade and the second with the third, give a cross. (for example: B- A-C -H)

Cuckoo motif ( descending minor third, the cuckoo sings really very different, but mostly about a major third ),

Klopf-/Repetitionsmotiv ( " Raindrop Prelude" by Frédéric Chopin )

Scale motive for ascending or descending diatonic or chromatic scales or scale cut-outs,

Triad motif,

Curvature motive for an arc -shaped or sinusoidal tone sequence,

Jump motive for a larger interval jump up or down,

Interval elongation motif ( eg f ' f'' - f' g'' - f ' a'' ... ) links for the distance to the starting clay magnifying tone sequence, the jump and scale,

Fifth motive, Quart subject, etc., such as motives, which are named after the prevailing interval jump: as " Quint case " if the interval descends, as " Quart jump " when it rises (for example, in the folk song " In the Märzen the farmer ").

Processing capabilities of the subject

The processing capabilities of the subject are: repetition, variation and contrast, which can also be combined with each other.

Melodic variation possibilities of the subject are:

  • Reduction or enlargement of some or all intervals.
  • The direction reversal of the intervals ( inversion).
  • Playing backwards, the entire motif ( cancer).

Rhythmic variation possibilities of the subject are:

  • The enlargement (augmentation ) and reduction ( diminution ) of the note values ​​of the entire subject.
  • The lengthening and shortening of individual sounds.

Harmonic variations are repeats of the motif in modified harmonic context.

The manifold possibilities of this technique show some examples from Joseph Haydn's String Quartet in D minor, opus 76, first sentence:

Sample Line 1 and 2 Sample Line 3


The juxtaposition of the subject (contrast ) with a different, very opposite motive can, the original motif give new impetus and create tension. Here, the subjects in the course of motivic- thematic work often merge with one another, resulting in frequent new motifs emerge.

The mentioned methods were used (see example) in the period from Joseph Haydn to Mahler in the sonata form, especially in the genres of the sonata, symphony and the string quartet.

In the music of the Middle Ages, the motivic work has also been used, but was not always centrally. On one hand, it was partly the intention of the principle of Varietas (Latin: chroma, diversity ) to avoid embossed music, repetition and symmetry training in rhythmic and melodic range ( Guillaume Dufay ). On the other hand, can be found in the song, for example, Giles Binchois, again thematically quite clearly articulated themes.

A master of motivic- thematic work was Ludwig van Beethoven, who formed dramatic and dialectical phrases or even entire plants from small, inconspicuous designs. Other hand, Franz Schubert rather lyrical- modulatory approach afraid motif decomposition and motivic- thematic work. He used more variation -like embellishments and changing harmonious interpretations of the theme.

In the music of the Romantic sounds of the theme are often alternately distributed on the upper, lower and middle voices, so that neither the terms nor homophony polyphony capture this notation. Robert Schumann speaks of the inner voice ( Humoresque op 20), a kind of imaginary melody. Rhythmic shifts and harmonic ambiguities generate an additional element of " romantic obfuscation and enchantment ."

In the late Romantic Anton Bruckner can develop slowly from a " rudimentary core motif " on the subject. Its main intervals are presented at the beginning ( Symphony No. 3 ). This approach turned Beethoven already in his ninth symphony.


The number of motifs and Motivabwandlungen has - as well as the size and instrumentation of the orchestra - increased considerably, and the boundary between exposure and development begins to blur.

In Impressionism occur motif and motivic- thematic work in favor of harmony and sophisticated instrumentation back to the part.

In the music of the 20th century, both tendencies are present. The otherwise form -conscious composer Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky pursue the motivic- thematic work, and the twelve-tone technique gives this room ( Sample? / I).

It is there all the more important because of the classic reference of the motifs was abandoned for tonal harmony as a compositional principle in favor of the horizontal 12-tone row. Thus, the example given motif accompanied by rhythmic grouping in played by different instruments Dreitongruppen in different note values ​​( sixteenth note, eighth note, eighth note triplets, quarter triplets ) ago. Melodic reference is given by the use of the third and the interval of the minor ninth. After a pause, this principle is applied from the piano to the retrograde inversion of the 12 - tone row.

Other composers such as Olivier Messiaen and Steve Reich go to the motif, however, aware of the way.

On music that is based purely on sound or noise structures (clusters, minimal music, sound surfaces, micropolyphony, aleatoric music, musique concrète ), can the conventional motive analysis hardly apply: unless one extends the notion of the subject on a purely rhythmic, tonal or other structures. A block could be the sound 'A', which always has a certain length and is played with a well-defined dynamics, when it occurs. Here, this selective music called to dispense with the traditional motivic- thematic work and touted the " equality of all elements of the composition " ( Karlheinz Stockhausen).

Historical development of the concept

From Angelo Berardi from the 17th century, the term motivo di cadenza comes for a pulse of basic votes to the final formation. Related Berardi same expression for a melodic fragment to contrapuntal design. Jean -Jacques Rousseau meant by the term the original motif and principal compositional idea of a piece.

The first signs of a musical motif doctrine lie in the 18th century, when Johann Mattheson and others began to disassemble the melody into individual parts of a sentence. The concept of the subject was not yet customary in German musicology, although they used to call the main idea of an aria motivo. The terms motif, theme and soggetto were used interchangeably.

With Adolf Bernhard Marx ( 1837), the term was at the beginning of the 19th century entrance to the musicology. Marx saw the subject as "... the bud and drive ... one of the musical arrangement serving formula of two or more tones from which arises the greater tone row. " Where he had distinguished between subject and subject. Hugo Riemann ( 1882) saw that the subject is always upbeat primordial cell, which did not remain undisputed. The term thematic work begins in the 19th century by Heinrich Christoph Koch ( 1802) and Johann Christian Lobe (1844 ) enforce.

The term thematic work a qualitative element highest art of composition is combined. At the same time you lift the so- called technology from a central design principle of classical music from the older contrapuntal procedures. As a consequence of the differentiation between subject and subject, the term motivic work comes on. This gives rise to the somewhat indifferent expression motivic- thematic work