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Motivic Development - Part 2

This article is the 2nd in a series. Part 1 can be found here.

Last time we talked about what motivic development is and how it can be used. This approach to composing music may sound systematic and unmusical, however the idea here is that you as a composer are a musical person, therefore, everything you touch will turn into music anyway.

The role of motivic development then, is to stir the pot that is your brain. As we saw last time, developing motifs take a lot of the guesswork out of composition.


So, what can motivic development do for you?


1. Unity


When everything from the melodies to the chords to the rhythms and even the form itself is derived from the same source material, a piece will sound more coherent and unified.


To demonstrate, let me treat you to an excerpt from my string quartet. Let's see if you can pick my motif usage apart.




Notice how everything from the melody to the chords to the rhythm seem to have something in common.


Can you imagine what the original motif looked like?


2. Memorability + Novelty


We rarely remember a melody the first time we hear it, but being able to pick out recognizable parts in a piece of music is vital for the listener to be able to orient themselves in the larger form.


On one hand, repetition is necessary to make music intelligible. We can achieve this by repeating a motif.

On the other, too much repeition is boring. Therefore, we develop the motif.

Even when motifs are developed and change, they still refer back to the original. That way, we achieve both repetition and change at the same time.


This is how you can compose music that is both digestible and complex.


3. Organic development


Have you ever noticed how a lot of classical music tends to start simple? Using Beethoven's 5th symphony as an example, it opens by presenting the motif in its purest state. It's almost as if you can feel Beethoven's thought process:


«du-du-du-duu, huh? Let's see what I can do with that!»

And so, we follow Beethoven's investigative approach as he deveops the motif, testing out ideas that build on eachother organically.


Whether or not this is how he actually composed the piece... who knows? In any case, by letting the development of your motifs reflect your thought process, or at least some kind of thought process, you make the music easier to follow for an audience as well.


Notice in the video how Beethoven's motif is developed organically, just like the couple's quarrel:



Try and see if you can point out what development strategies Beethoven used on the original motif (marked in darker red) to create this opening.

As you can hear, developing motifs can also contribute to events within the composition feeling inevitable, because the ideas emerge organically from each other.


Of course, it's not really true that any particular development is inevitable - there are infinite ways that music can develop convincingly. However, feeling as if the music couldn't have happened any other way makes for great drama!


4. Authenticity


Clichés come about when you compose something that is not based in your composition's own musical language.


When you use motifs however, you are sticking to what is essentially a part of your composition's musical language. Therefore, motivic development is a safeguard against clichés.


Technically, clichés will still be possible to commit, but it will be that much harder as you will be preoccupied with making the motif fit the music, instead of looking to other pieces of music for ideas that were ultimately concieved under different circumstances.


A cliché is the opposite of a tailor-made solution to an artistic problem.


I will write more about the nature of cliché in a future blog post.


5. Symbolism


Everyone has heard of leitmotifs - musical ideas that through their usage become associated with external ideas, like characters, places, ideologies and so on.


When this connection is established, your motifs can add powerful subtext to a story that is primarily told through other means than music. Or you can even let the music take over and tell the story by itself.




Now you've seen some ways motivic development can add to your music. In the next part of this series, I will talk more about how working with motifs affects the composing process. Please look forward to it!

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