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Motivic Development - Part 1

Welcome to my series on motivic development!

Motivic development is taking a musical motif and altering it in different ways so it becomes slightly different. New, but still recognizable.

The purpose of this is to give us more material for a composition. This way we don't have to sit by the piano and pull new ideas out of thin air every time we want to continue our piece or when we simply need more building blocks to work with.

Instead, we just make simple changes to the material we already have.

By using motivic development, we take a lot of the guesswork and coincidences out of the composing process, letting us work in a more streamlined and decisive manner.

This first part will be about what motivic development is and how you use it. In future parts, I will talk more about its perks and what consequences it will have for how you write. Motivic development is a foundational skill for a composer. It creates unity, cohesion and logical flow to a piece of music, something I will talk about more in part 2.


We can alter a musical motif in several different ways to create a «menu» of related motifs that we can use in our composing:

1. Strict imitation (repetition of whole motif) 2. Free imitation (imitation with alteration) 3. Tonal answer (sequence) 4. Inversion 5. Mirror (Inversion, but with a different note as the axis of symmetry) 6. Retrograde 7. Retrograde + Inversion 8. Diminution 9. Augmentation 10. Simplification (removing notes from the original motif) 11. Repetition (repeating one or more notes within the motif) 12. Ornamentation 13. Development

14. Displacement (shifting the order of the pitches)

(list is not exhaustive or authorative - it's entirely up to you how you want to alter your motifs)

Here are more in-depth explanations and demonstrations of the different techniques, made by Odd Johan Overøye at the Norwegian University of Technology and Science:

You can listen to the piece he based on this motif here.

Putting it into practice

So let's say we have started a composition and we're running out of ideas. We find a motif we've used in our composing so far that we can alter:

We don't know exactly what we want yet, but let's just start somewhere and make a retrograde version of it. To begin with, let's retrograde just the pitches. That means we use the same rhythmic figure, but play the pitches in reverse. The original motif's notes are B, C#, D# and E, in that order. Retrograded, they would become E, D#, C# and B:

Neat! We can also retrograde the rhythm in addition to the pitches. What's initially an «eight note triplet + quarter note» now becomes a «quarter note + an eight note triplet»:

Now our options for composing have expanded from one motif to three motifs. If we wanted to, we could also retrograde just the rhythm, without retrograding the pitches.

Let's forget about the retrograded rhythm for a moment however and continue working with the pitches. The motif menu below is based in the motif we just saw, Motif A, plus a Motif B that is a little bit different.

Both motif A and B were retrograded and given a tonal answer (a repetition on a different scale degree). This is what you see on the first line of both Motif A and Motif B.

Then I proceeded to displace the order of the notes, as well as using octave transpositions of single notes to create various new motifs based on the ones created so far. The pitch order B, C#, D#, E can become C#, D#, E, B and so on:

That's a huge amount of material! And so far, only 4 of the alteration types have been used. Now, let's make music with them. Here's a little snippet of music I wrote to showcase the possibilities:

The melody was quoted directly from line 2, 4, 7 and 9 of the menu above. I also let the accompaniment's driving rhythms be based in the motif's triplet. The harmony of the snippet was based loosely on the harmony already implicated in the motifs (B, C#, D#, E = C#m9, while B, E, G#, A = Eadd11 and Amaj7sus4 and so on).

This is based in just one motif out of an infinity of possible ones. You can take any notes, any rhythms and make a motif out of them, and proceed to make similar menus with the same or different alterations, which will then yield another infinity of different compositions.

Imagine the possibilities that open up simply by choosing a different rhythm or a different pitch set!

More examples

A more extreme example of motivic development in use is Bach's Invention No. 1, BWV 772. This piece is based on the 7-note motif presented at the beginning of the piece. The motif is then altered in almost all the ways listed above to make up every single phrase of the piece:

Another classical example is the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 1. Notice how the 16th note triplet figure and the arpeggio motif are repeatead in various ways throughout. Even the chord voicings are reused; the opening broken chord is presented as a block chord an octave higher a few bars later:

In the future, we will talk more about the effects motivic development has on your composition, how big part of your craft it can actually be and different ways to approach using it. In the meantime, enjoy your motifs!

...and the future is already here. Now onto Part 2!

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