Some thoughts on motivic development. This is a reprint of an old article of mine.


Ok, it's late, I am exhausted but can't sleep. I was working on something but the inspiration evaporated, so here is another article.

This information applies not to the guitar, but to the melodic development process. This may be interesting or perhaps helpful to "would be" improvisers and composers.

Motivic development is the process whereby a musical seed is planted, germinates, matures and resolves. This musical seed may be as small as two notes or as long as a couple measures. (Any longer and we journey into the realm of thematic development.) This seed is called a motive.

Motives may be combined into phrases, which may or may not be developed into themes (songs). The music of Bach, (especially The Two Part Inventions and The Well Tempered Clavier), serves as an excellent tool for studying motivic development. The Two Part Inventions were composed as instructional material for his own children to learn how to manipulate motives and even themes. In the works found in both of these collections, all of the motivic material is presented in the opening phrase, called the exposition. A musical idea is presented, it's recognizable elements (motives) are twisted, inverted, reversed, augmented, sequenced, interpolated, etc.... so that new musical material organically grows from the original ideas.

In the Bach examples the motives are treated to a variety of now standard counterpoint techniques creating beautiful multi voice textures in which each part (usually 2 to 4 voices) is independent yet perfectly interwoven with the others.

The motive is the smallest form of a musical idea. It may be rhythmic, melodic, even harmonic, and in any combination. Simple rhythmic motives, like the 4 note intro in Beethoven's 5th Symphony, are very useful. A rhythmic motive is simply a repeated rhythmic pattern, in which the pitch of the notes may change but the rhythm remains the same.

A melodic motive is the opposite; the pitch relations of a group of notes remain constant, while the rhythm changes.

In the Beethoven example, the melodic and rhythmic values both are constant during the initial exposition, but the entire 4 note motive is transposed, this is what we call a harmonic motive, same tune, different harmony. and rhythmic values both are constant during the initial exposition, but the entire 4 note motive is transposed, this is what we call a harmonic motive, same tune, different harmony.

Most composers (by composer I mean anyone writing music, be they a great classical master or some guy in a garage band) use this process in one way or another, a great many without even realizing it. Deriving material from previously stated material is a musical practice that predates "music theory".

The thing is, these derivations may be obvious, subtle, or in between. One of the things that always fascinated me about motivic development is that even if you bury a motive or develop it to a point where it no longer has any resemblance to the original, the transitional phases the idea morphs through act as gateways for the listener to subconsciously grasp the relationship between even disparate parts.

Sometimes, maybe you have a motive that you want to use with another but they are foreign to each other and just do not sound right. You simply take elements from both, pour them together, and create an episode to bridge the two together.

Improvisers, especially jazz players, live and die by the process of motivic development. In a jazz tune, a "head" is played. The head is a song, like Giant Steps or My Favorite Things, or whatever. When the time comes to solo, the soloist will borrow elements from the head and develop the ideas into something fresh, yet still tied to the song. I love improvising on both the of tunes I just mentioned, Giant Steps has really cool chord changes and My Favorite Things has some good wide interval motives which serve as great landmarks when getting further away from the original melody.

The key is, the further from the source material you get, the more valuable an occasional motivic reference can be. So you have been improvising in your cool version of The Simpson's Theme (I am currently recording my cool version of it!!) and you've come to a spot where you have gotten very far away from any relevant key and are amidst a flurry of fast notes and it's time to bring em home, what do you do? A quick reference back to a recognizable part of the tune, maybe just 4 or 6 notes, sequenced maybe, to lead right back to the part of the tune you want to be in.

By the way, the Simpson's show has awesome instances of motivic and thematic development, in it's 15+ years we have heard dozens of contortions of that now ubiquitous theme!!!

Writing something like this for a Message board post is a dual edged sword. On the one hand I get to explain a really cool musical concept to anyone interested in reading this; on the other, there is no way to do the subject justice. I could write 400 pages easily about just motivic development alone. So no way am I claiming that the info here is complete, I really just wanted to introduce the basic ideas behind the process.

The easiest way to study motivic development is to listen attentively to music. You will hear it constantly in just about any music you happen to turn on. Another great help is to pick up some sheet music, any will do, and find patterns on the page. Much music you will find can be built upon just a simple idea or two.

Many years ago a friend of mine and great composer/improviser/guitar guru named Matt Butler gave me a simple exercise. Begin with your telephone number, assign pitches to each digit, and work that into a motive that you develop into a piece of music. I once put phrases of Morse code in a symphonic composition; you could take a cool short 2 or three word phrase, or even a word, and make rhythmic motives using Morse code!! You can take fragments of your melody and use them as motivic material for accompanying parts or for ornamentation. A composer/improvisers style is largely (and I mean in my opinion in the 90-95% range) defined by his manipulation of motivic material.