Progression: Music Theory 110 – Development, Motifs, and Repetition

- Posted March 12th, 2018 by

Hey dudes and dudettes,

I’m back in the writing room organising music theory tutelage for you folks, and it just dawned on me that I’ve been writing for this website for more than a year now. Life is good.

Last month we covered the idea of pivoting into seemingly unrelated key areas. As I’m sure you are all aware I will strongly advise you to go back and read through my previous articles as they will help contextualise what we know by this point. This month is an interesting one. This isn’t a music theory topic per se, but rather a skill for musical architecture. We’ll be covering the idea of motific development and creating music that cohesively builds on its musical material.

Let’s jam.

I’ve got a weird feeling that I’m clutching at straws with this whole “weird photos of sheet music” thing.

What’s a motif?

Excellent question. The idea of a motif in music hearkens back to Wagnerian Opera (even though it was used in music prior to this period anyway) where it was first recognised under the title of a “Leitmotif“. Leitmotifs were passages of music that represented a character, a place, or even an event. Whenever that passage of music would be quoted the character in question would appear and so-on-so-forth. In fact, there’s a lot to be said about the use of leitmotifs in video game music, namely games like “Undertale“. Motifs can be documented back to *very* early music (we’re talking pre-baroque music here folks) but we’re going to take a look at an example by Beethoven today. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony: 1st Movement is an iconic work that showcases the idea of motif VERY well. First I want you to take a listen to the first minute or so. Then we’re going to take a brief look at the score. Here’s the first page:

All of the red notes are restatements or developments of the motif. We’ll get into why in a second.

I would hazard a guess to say that 90% of the population has heard those first four bars of music. Beethoven has brilliantly set this up to give us the first musical motif of his fifth symphony and then proceed to use the everloving crap out of it for the next 5 – 10 minutes. The entire motif is based on the rhythm of three quavers, followed by a held note a few notes below. For bars 6-14 he restates this motif constantly throughout the string section, using the idea of three short notes, then a long note a few notes below. Then he does something interesting.

In bar 15 onwards the first three violin parts continue the motif with a slight variation. They add a passing note between the first note and the last held one. Not too drastic. This is fine. He then decides to have violin 4, 5, and 6 invert this line by starting on a note and then passing through to a note above it for the held note. The rhythm is intact, but the contour of the melody is completely different. A perfect mirror of what has come before.

This is excellent motific development. Beethoven has taken what exists and has reused it.

Why should you use motifs? It sounds complicated and unnecessary.

The idea of motifs isn’t what I’m trying to get at here. My argument is that you should say more with less. Rather than writing a song with forty ideas (regardless of how good those ideas are), you should just focus on one, two, maybe three main ideas and develop those ideas. Find ways to take them and make more from them. Let’s have a few examples.

Rhythmic Augmentation/Diminution

Rhythmic Augmentation and Diminution is the idea that you take a musical fragment and either contract or extend the length of the rhythms. A really great example for this technique can be found in Danimal Cannon’s killer track ‘Axis‘. He overlays his main musical fragment with another pulse channel playing the same sequence of notes at double the speed (halving the note length). Visually it looks like this:

All this *AND* he has the audacity to change time signatures? Mate, let the rest of us catch up! 

Intervalic Augmentation/Diminution

You might have guessed from looking at the heading, but just in case this terminology is completely unbeknownst to you this is all about the expanding or contracting of notes within a melodic fragment based on its contour. The notes of a melody might come closer together or space themselves out further, but generally they will do so while retaining some form of hierarchy of proximity to each other. For example, if a melody goes C, G, B you might bring it down to C E G, and frequently avoid C F E because the original B was further away from the C than the G was. You can see a great example of this intervalic diminution in the Beethoven example above. The prime motif jumps down a third (major or minor depending on the starting note in a diatonic scale), but there are many parts that jump down a second instead such as violin 2 in bar 7.


This one is a really fun one to use and I encourage you all to play around with it. Retrograde is where you reverse a sequence of notes. For example, if we were going to use the musical material from Axis we might use the 6/8 bar in reverse first, and then the 5/8 bar in reverse. Here’s an example of what I mean:

You could have just a section of the retrograde versions of this main theme. The possibilities are endless.

In fact, if you really like the idea of retrograde, you could always check out STEMAGE’S SUPER RAD ALBUM “RETROGRESSION VOL 1” which is entirely dedicated to this concept, and is executed VERY well. It should also be noted that you can use a technique called inversion as well where you keep the musical material but flip the contour of the melody. If the melody goes up by a major third then it would be flipped to either a major or minor third below. Use to your ear to determine which sounds the best in context.

Add Notes In

This one might be the easiest of these techniques. Just add in notes. Make it 7/8 instead. Add a passing note. Make one quaver into two semiquavers. Really simple stuff. It’s still incredibly recognisable because it’s based on that primary musical material, you’ve just added (or taken away) an element to recontextualise the motif. Here’s yet another example using Axis:

Honestly, this is pretty simple, but it’s a great way to create more stuff from pre-existing stuff

I want to follow all of this up by stating something I wished I had learned far earlier in life. As a composer, you get to use these tools to create, edit, and refine your music. You are the one using the tools. Don’t let the tools use you. If something doesn’t entirely work or sound right… change it. Your ears, your taste, and your own personal judgments are far more important that a few rules and guidelines. Always remember that.

I hope that you guys got something out of this article and that it inspires you to develop your own musical material. Please share how this knowledge has helped you with your own craft! If you have questions, recommendations for topics, or even just want to share what you’ve learned, get in touch with me at tuberzmcgee (at) gmail (dot) com. I’m always happy to listen/read/help out. I know I said I was gonna talk about it this month, but tune in next month for a discussion on the use of melody and its impact on the harmonic landscape. I just really wanted to talk about development as its a really pivotal part of writing that I often see overlooked.



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