Musical Motifs

My musical focus, lately, has been on trying to compose melodic motifs or fragments, in an improvisational setting, that have some beauty to them.  It’s very easy to simply roll out all the licks you’ve learned, or to doggedly stick to scales and fretboard “boxes”, on guitar.  I’m trying to avoid doing that, because it’s repetitive and boring.  Instead, I am trying to drop surprising notes into my melodic motifs, to create mood and interest.

The reason I am concentrating on musical motifs is to strengthen my melody writing and part writing skills, as a composer.  The basis for the kind of music I want to make is to take a decent motif and manipulate it in different ways, so that the overall effect is one of musical cohesiveness and structure.  However, in order to start, you need interesting motifs and that’s the reason I am focusing on creating them.  This is also a great way for song writers to find a way to reliably create interesting hooks or riffs.

I’ve developed an approach that seems to be working for me.  The first thing to note is that I tend to anchor any phrase I play to chord tones.  I try hard to start and end the motif on a note that corresponds to the chord being played, whatever it happens to be.  In a progression, that means connecting up a starting note from one chord to a finishing note on another.  You have to think, while you play.

In between the anchor notes, the motif or phrase can incorporate scalar fragments, arpeggios, chromatic runs and any combination and subset of these, going in either direction (up or down or both).  Mixing these three fundamental “shapes” between the anchor notes gives lots of scope for building a melody that fits the progression.

Sometimes, you need to link one motif to another, in order to make a complete musical statement.  The way to approach that is to end your first phrase or motif on one of the suspension notes of the scale corresponding to the chord being played, or the key of the song.  That means ending your first phrase on the 2nd, 4th or 6th note of the scale.  This creates intrigue and a longing for resolution, which gets resolved by the second phrase.  Making two motifs, like this, lets you create a musical question and then to use the second phrase to give the answer.  It’s also known as “call and response”.  In composition, using one timbre to state the call and another instrument to play the response gives your music greater interest.

If you are creating motifs on guitar, there is a terrible tendency to want to start and end your phrases on the root note, or the octave above or below it.  It’s the centre of gravity of the musical key, after all.  Unfortunately, this, too, gets boring and predictable.  To add some surprise and to break up the monotony, it pays to start your motif on the 5th or the 3rd interval (or the 4th, if you are feeling more adventurous).

When it comes to ending a phrase, gravitating to the root note again is very psychologically satisfying, unless you do it all the damn time.  Instead, punctuate your motif by ending it on a major 7th, or 9th.  This is what the jazz players do and again, it produces an expectation of resolving to the root, without actually doing so.  In the mind of the listener, there is a strong suggestion of the root note, but because it is not actually played, the listener has to complete the phrase in their own imagination.  Rhythmically, you can do a lot to enhance this expectation.

The next way to create more interesting musical motifs is to vary the rhythms of the notes in the motif.  Instead of using straight eighth notes, use dotted notes, triplets, syncopation, the odd quarter or half note and grace notes, trills and other decorations.  On guitar, adding hammer-ons or pull-offs, or bends, greatly increases your phrase vocabulary, though from a compositional point of view, reproducing these effects on other instruments can be challenging.

I’m a strong believer that musical phrases and motifs are like sentences and so, benefit from concision, because that adds to their clarity and comprehension (hence, “whistleability”).  However, like short sentences, short musical phrases are also like sound bites, in that they can become hollow and vacuous, if that’s all you use.  Once listeners begin to suspect your musical integrity, because you play only short, sound-bitey, melodic phrases, you’ve lost their interest.  To maintain it, you have to intersperse your short motifs with longer, more complex phrases, which contain the musical equivalent of sub clauses.

On balance, though, short motifs are better than long ones and can be manipulated more flexibly in a composition.  Too many long phrases alienate and lose the listener, just as too many short ones do.  Jazz improvisation is notorious for its use of long, intricate, dense, flashy, showy and ultimately suspect musical phrases.  Don’t be that composer.

When it comes to extended musical statements, two logically connected short motifs, or a single motif transposed to start from a different note in the scale, are far preferable to a single long phrase, however ornate it might be.  Also, use musical decoration sparingly, because like tomato sauce, if you put it on everything, the piquancy is lost.

Like most musical composition, the creation of pleasing musical motifs relies on a delicate balance of repetition and surprise.  Too much is just too much and too little is just as bad.  More importantly, head for a mood or feeling.  You’ll sense when your motif and melody is creating that.

So, that’s my process.  It’s a work in progress, but it has begun to yield some interesting things and it has definitely improved my approach to improvisation, on guitar.  I’m also finding that I have had to become more dextrous, breaking out of entrenched muscle memory habits.  This, of course, means that I make mistakes, but that’s all part and parcel of the melodic experimentation.  When I learn to do this well, I think I will be proud of the artistic result.

I encourage you to develop your own approach to creating musical, melodic fragments.  It’s the key to making good compositions, I feel.


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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