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Developing Motifs

Developing Motifs
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In this post I’m going to provide you with a useful template that you can use to develop a short motif or idea into a full-length piece. I’ll cover the PReVaDe method and provide a brief introduction to “sentence structure.” When properly combined these tools help give you a powerful weapon for fighting against writer’s block! However, as a quick disclaimer, I’d like to point out that there are literally countless ways that you can write a piece of music, and that this template is not an end-all-be-all strategy to great tune-smithing. It’s simply one of the many strategies I’ve developed over time to help me with my own composing process. With that being said, let’s dive in and take a quick look at the template!

This is what the template looks like when organized into a chart. It might not make much sense to you now, but by the time we’re done, you’ll realize just how simple it actually is. We can even break this entire thing down into three easy steps:

  1. Come up with a musical idea/motif

  2. Use PReVaDe to write two questions and an answer

  3. Repeat the process

Right away you’ll probably notice that the bulk of this entire process falls on step number two. It’s definitely the most technically demanding of the three steps, which is why we’ll spend the bulk of our time exploring it, but first let’s come up with a musical idea!

Step One: Come up with a musical idea/motif

This step is arguably the simplest of the three. I’m sure you often come up with short musical ideas when playing around on your instrument of choice. It’s pretty easy to absentmindedly come up with a brief idea, but much harder to turn it into a full melody. Your idea can be anything, but this template typically works best for shorter ideas that last no longer than a bar or two.

Here’s a musical snippet I came up with for the sake of this project:

Step Two: PReVaDe and Question/Answers

PReVaDe is a concept taken from improvisational studies in music. It stands for “Present, Repeat, Vary, and Deconstruct”. This step forms the foundation for the entire template in this document. Below I’m going to quickly go through the basics of PReVaDe as a process and show you how it might be used to develop the motif I just shared with you. Then I’ll take a little more time to go into more detail for each step of the PReVaDe process.

Present is exactly what it sounds like, we’re going to “present” our musical idea. This kick starts our melody and introduces the new material we’ll be working with. After we’ve presented our idea, we simply repeat it (sometimes with small changes) to help establish our motif as the main material that our music will build on (at least for a while).

After repeating the motif, we’re going to add some variety by modifying it. In this step, we’re simply repeating the motif again, but this time around we’re changing it up a little bit. You can do this by adding new notes, taking away pre-existing notes, switching up the rhythm, changing the harmonies, or whatever you’d like to do. In this case, I’m going to sequence the motif, which is a fancy way of saying I’m going to move it up or down in pitch, and I’m also going to switch up the last two notes.

The final step in PReVaDe is the Deconstruction phase, which is possibly one of the most confusing but important parts of this entire process. Here we’re going to tie things up with a nice little bow and end up with your very first “melodic statement”. Deconstruct basically means “end the piece”. There are many different strategies for deconstructing a motif, but for the sake of this template, we’re going to try and stick to just another varied repetition of the motif because this works nicely for the process of writing questions and answers in music (more on this in a bit).

So now we have a basic understanding of how PReVaDe works, but there are a few more points I’d like to share with you before moving on.

The “Repetition” and “Variation” steps are very closely related. Your “repetition” does NOT need to be an exact repetition of the original motif. You can feel free to add some new notes, change the pitch, switch the chord underneath it, etc. You can make whatever changes you want to your repetition but whatever you do, keep in mind that your initial repetition should be more closely related to the original motif than your “variation”. So in other words, the more changes you make to your “repetition” of the motif, the more changes you’ll need to make to the “variation” of it. Another way to think of this is that the “repetition” of step can be a “mini variation” and the “variation” step should be treated as a “bigger variation” step.

If you’re struggling with coming up with different ways to add variation to your motif, here’s a chart I made of common strategies that have been used by composers for centuries. Feel free to use as many or as few of these at a time as you’d like.

So now that we all have a better understanding of the PReVaDe method, we’re going to start applying it. For this template, we’re going to focus on using PReVaDe four times to write three different melodic sentences. The first two PReVaDe’s will be questions while the second two will combine together for a single answer.

Now chances are that you’ve heard “questions and answers” in music many times before. It’s a very common concept, but I find that very few people actually enjoy a clear understanding of what it means. Most instructors certainly seem to take for granted that everyone has an intrinsic understanding of the differences between questions and answers in music, but I know that it’s something I struggled with quite a bit when I first started out. Because of this, I’d like to take a bit of time to delve deeper into this idea.

At the core of the “questions vs. answers” idea is a single question: “does this sound like it could be an ending or not?”. If a segment of music feels like it could be a satisfying ending to the piece then it can be considered an “answer,” however if a segment of music feels like it’s open-ended or that there should be more music coming after it then it’s considered to be a “question.”

Now, this idea can be helpful for identifying questions and answers when you’re listening to music, but it’s not as helpful for writing them yourself. For this, I’m going to recommend a simple approach from Alan Belkin’s fantastic book “Musical Composition: Art and Craft.” In the book, Prof. Belkin states that there are five parameters that determine if a phrase is a question or answer: Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, Texture, and Dynamics. In order for a phrase to be an answer, a minimum of two parameters MUST agree that it is an answer. The more phrases that agree, the stronger the sense of finality your answer phrase will have!

Below, I’ll include a simple chart for how these parameters can be used to classify a phrase as an answer. As a general rule, questions are the opposite of answers, so if you want to designate a phrase as a question phrase, do the opposite of what you would for an answer.

One last important thing to consider when writing questions and answers is that they aren’t black and white. They exist on a spectrum! By that, I mean that a musical idea can be considered a question in one situation OR an answer in another! It all depends on what other musical ideas are surrounding it.

For example, let’s say that we have a PReVaDe sentence that you wrote using 3 question traits and 2 answer traits. We’ll call this “Sentence A”.

If you follow it with a “Sentence B” that has only 1 question trait, and 4 Answer traits then in comparison, sentence A will sound more like a question.

However, if Sentence B instead has 5 straight Question Traits, then sentence A will sound more like an answer. For those of you, like me, who like more visual examples here’s what I mean:

So in other words, if you write a sentence as mostly a question, but include a touch of traits that you'd find in an answer, you can take that question and use it as a type of weak answer. Sort of like phrasing your answer to a question as a question:

Teacher: “What are mitochondria?”

Me: “....the powerhouse of the cell?”

This doesn’t exactly invite confidence in your answer, but it’s an answer nonetheless. There are all kinds of sentences you can make along this spectrum but that’s a topic for another time. For now, let’s keep moving on.

Now that we have a better understanding of PReVaDe and Questions/Answers. Let’s take another look at the template from earlier.

Does it make a little more sense now? Let’s break it down

First we start the template by using PReVaDe to turn our motif into our first Question.

Then we use it again to write a Second question (I typically like to give this one a few more answer traits than the first).

After we’ve done that we use it two more times to make one long Answer (you can think of this as writing a comparatively weaker answer followed by a stronger one).

Then we wrap it all up with the final step which is to repeat the entire process as many times as you’d like while taking any liberties you’d like! (Hence the repeat sign)

Step Three: Repeating the Processes with Any Changes You Feel Like!

I want to keep this step purposefully vague because I don’t want you to end up getting boxed into a super rigid template when writing your music. This is an issue that many composers fall into. Templates like this one can be very useful, especially when first starting out. However, just like everything else in music, they exist only as suggestions! Nothing in music theory is a hard law. Music theory, by definition, is just the collection of experiences and suggestions had by generations of musicians. You have the freedom to follow these as closely or as loosely as you’d like. I’d personally recommend that you use this template only so far as it’s helpful. If you have an idea of how to develop part of your music that doesn’t fit into this framework then do it! Don’t worry about following the steps rigidly.

However, as useful as I’d like to believe this information is, I know it’s not necessarily what many of you were looking for so I WILL provide a few ideas you can use for the third step, but I can’t recommend enough that you experiment and try your own way of continuing on.

Ideas for how to continue:

  1. Repeat the entire template exactly as it is.

  2. Switch things up a bit. The first musical paragraph was written as “Question-Question-Long Answer” maybe try a different approach

    1. Long Question- Short Answer- Short Answer?

    2. Long Answer-follow up question-follow up question?

    3. Series of ambiguous questions/answers with so many different traits you can’t really tell which is which.

  3. Maybe try mixing up PReVaDe into a different order

    1. Presentation-Variation-Variation-Deconstruction?

    2. Variation-Variation-Variation-Variation?

    3. Presentation-Variation-Repetition-Deconstruction?

    4. Anything you can think of?

  4. Come up with a new Musical Idea and try any of the above suggestions to develop it.

The point I’m trying to make here is that this template can be as rigid or flexible as you need it to be. If you’re looking for lots of structure, then by all means feel free to write two or three musical paragraphs that stick rigidly to the first two steps. If you just need something to help you get started, then use the first steps or skip right to the third. Whatever you feel is most helpful. At the end of the day, your music is your own and can be written any way that you like. The only caveat that I’d add is that if a particular musical idea is significant to the makeup of your piece, it can be really helpful to end the piece on some answer-based variation of that idea. This will give your ending a relatively strong feeling of finality.

I hope this is all helpful to you in your journey as a composer. As always, I’m open to any ideas you have for articles or videos you’d like to see. If you haven’t already, consider checking out my youtube channel where I post videos on the topics I cover here and more! If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to shoot me an email at tabletopcomposer@gmailcom I always enjoy hearing from you guys. Best of luck, and keep on writing!

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Ismael Rinaudo
Ismael Rinaudo
Nov 14, 2022
Or "literally":
Pre = 1 bar => Q1
Re = 1 bar => Q2
Va = 1 bar + From = 1 bar => Ans

==> 4 bars?
Stephen Berkemeier
Stephen Berkemeier
Nov 14, 2022
Replying to

This one is correct :) each step of PReVaDe helps develop your motif into a full phrase.

If you're working with a single 1 bar motivic idea then a full phrase would look like this:

Pre = 1 bar

Re = 1 bar

Va= 1 bar

De = 1 bar.

This would give you a 4 bar phrase. Your first full phrase should be Q1, then your second full phrase could be Q2. Then your final two phrases would be your Answer. This would give you a total of 4 individual phrases.

Does this answer your question?


Ismael Rinaudo
Ismael Rinaudo
Nov 14, 2022


Q1 = Pre

Q2 = Re

Ans = Va + De

==> 8 bars? (robot-proforma; simplest possible model; default structure)


Ismael Rinaudo
Ismael Rinaudo
Nov 14, 2022
That is, taking your motif from a measure; more having, that, each PreReVaDe multiplies the number of bars of the motif, by four; more having, that, Q1, Q2, Answ, multiplies a PreReVaDe by four; we have that a Q1, Q2 , Answ = 16 bars. Right? Could you reply (Yes or Not) to my email, please? Thank you very much!
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