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Encyclopedia > Motif (music)

In music, a motif is a perceivable or salient reoccurring fragment or succession of notes that may used to construct the entirety or parts of complete melodies, themes. A motif is distinguished from a figure in that a motif is foreground while a figure is background: "A figure resembles a moulding in architecture: it is 'open at both ends', so as to be endlessly repeatable. In hearing a phrase as a figure, rather than a motif, we are at the same time placing it in the background, even if it is...strong and melodious." (Scruton 1997: 61) A motif may be harmonic, melodic (pitch) and/or rhythmic (duration).

A motif thematically associated with a person, place, or idea is called a leitmotif.

A phrase originally presented or heard as a motif may become a figure which accompanies another melody, such as in the second movement of Claude Debussy's String Quartet:

The 1957 Encyclopédie Larousse defines a motif as follows:

  • "a small element characteristic of a musical composition, which guarantees in various ways the unity of a work or a part of the work (a motif can be assimilated into a cell, and can have three aspects that may be dissociated from one another, rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic)."

The Encyclopédie de la Pléiade defins a motif as follows:

  • a "melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic cell, characteristic of a musical work."

The 1980 New Grove defines a motif as follows:

  • "a short musical idea, be it melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic, or all three. A motif may be of any size, though it is most commonly regarded as the shortest subdivision of a theme or phrase that still maintains its identity as an idea. It is most often thought of in melodic terms, and it is this aspect of the motif that is connoted by the term 'figure'."

The 1958 Encyclopédie Fasquelle defines a motif as follows:

  • "In classical musical syntax, this is the smallest analyzable element (phrase) within a subject; it may contain one or more cells. A harmonic motif is a series of chords defined in the abstract, that is, wihtout reference to melody or rhythm. A melodic motif is a melodic formula, established without reference to intervals. A rhythmic motif is the term designating a characteristic rhythmic formula, an abstraction drawn from the rhythmic values of a melody."


  • Scruton, Roger (1997). The Aesthetics of Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0198166389.
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN 0691027145.
    • (1957). Encyclopédie Larousse.
    • Encyclopédie de la Pléiade.
    • (1980). New Grove.
    • (1958). Encyclopédie Fasquelle.

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