What is a motif in music?
We explain the meaning of the term motif.
What is a motif?
Within a piece of music, a motif is the term used to describe a short section with a distinct identity (a complete musical ‘idea’ or ‘thought’) that is found throughout, and is characteristic of, the whole composition – the piece’s ‘calling card’.
Motifs can be harmonic, melodic or rhythmic (or they may contain a combination of these elements) and are considered to be the smallest of the ‘building blocks’ – the recognisable, reoccurring themes and phrases – that make up a composition.
Examples of a motif in music
A great example of a motif can be found in the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which is instantly recognisable by its famous opening motif. Formed by the first four notes of the piece, this memorable motif is repeated throughout the first movement and is at the core of the composition.
Other examples include the first bar of Fingal’s Cave by Mendelssohn; the opening five notes in Mozart’s Turkish March, and the first three notes of Brahms’s Lullaby. In each case, listening to just these short sections alone means anyone familiar with the pieces will be able to recognise them instantly, due to the distinct identity of these motifs.