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How Do You Write a Good Motif?

If you’ve spent any amount of time studying film music or soundtracks, you probably already know how important it is to come up with a strong motif. A good motif can make or break a soundtrack, but it can be frustratingly difficult to figure out whether your musical ideas are up to the task. Fortunately, there are a few strategies you can follow to make sure your next motivic idea has the foundation needed to carry an entire soundtrack.

The key to a strong motif is to make sure your idea contains deliberate self-contrast. In other words, you need to be intentional with the ways your motif provides variety across its different parameters (e.g., pitch, rhythm, dynamics, etc.) Creating this variety is what helps ensure your motif is rich enough to be developed across multiple pieces. Understanding when and how to provide the self-contrast is the secret to making sure every one of your motifs can work as the backbone to an entire soundtrack.

(This article focuses on writing motifs only, if you're interested in learning how to take a motif and develop it into a full-length piece of music, check out my free video series here.

You can purchase the slides and scripts used in the video series here )

Understanding Self-Contrast

So what exactly is “internal contrast?” Well, honestly chances are that you’ve already been using it this entire time, without even realizing it. Internal contrast is basically just what you call it whenever a motif uses any parameter of music in at least two different ways.

For example: does your motif have more than one pitch? If it does then that's a contrast in pitch! What about two different rhythmic values, like an eighth note and a quarter note? That's the contrast of rhythm! I mean, if your motif even shifts its volume at any point, that would be a contrast of dynamics!

Do you see what I mean? Practically every musician under the sun has been manipulating this kind of “internal contrast” in every piece of music they’ve ever played, hummed, or even clapped. It’s not difficult to come up with a motif that contains this kind of contrast. However, what takes things to the next level is by being DELIBERATE with these decisions as you make them! Being conscious of what types of contrast you want to work with, and how big you want that contrast to be!

If this seems intimidating, don’t worry. It’s not actually as difficult as you’d imagine. Being more deliberate with these kinds of decisions can actually be quite liberating. With a bit of practice, you’ll likely find that taking a few moments to consider these parameters is actually a lot easier than trying to wait around for “inspiration” to strike.

So let’s figure out how to be more deliberate with this process.

Two Common Types of Motifs and Their Uses

Pitch + Rhythm Motifs

The five most common types of internal contrast are:

  1. Pitch

  2. Rhythm

  3. Dynamics

  4. Articulation

  5. Timbre

Most motifs will focus on manipulating at least two of these parameters. You’ll likely end up working with all five to varying degrees, but focusing on just two at a time helps keep things from getting too complicated.

Any combination can be used to create a strong motif, but the most common by far are Pitch & Rhythm and Pitch & Timbre.

Pitch & Rhythm tends to be the standard. After all, these are the two most fundamental elements of a melody. These motifs tend to work really well when you want to write a tune-based or heavily melodic score (most of John Williams’s melodies are built on this type of motif). However, they also tend to be one of the more complex and intimidating types to write.

My suggestion is to start by coming up with a short sequence of 2-4 notes that sound nice together, don’t worry about rhythm just yet. Focus on creating a general shape and combination of notes that you like.

Once you have your notes figured out, try experimenting with different rhythmic ideas until you’ve come up with one that you enjoy.

The next step is to combine both of them together and listen to how they sound.

Finally, experiment with making different tweaks to the rhythm and pitch until you have a motif that you’re willing to work with!

Pitch + Timbre Motifs

Pitch & Timbre tends to be simpler, but no less impactful. The idea is to focus on 2-4 notes that form an interesting shape (or collection of intervals) with each other and select an interesting and expressive instrument to perform them. One example is the famous Dark Knight Motif by Hans Zimmer (only two notes played by French horns).

These motifs tend to work really well when a general mood or ambiance is desired more than a full-on melody.

My suggestion for writing these is to start by finding two notes that form an interesting interval with each other and then selecting an equally interesting instrument to perform them. After you have your first interval, you can play with different ways to continue it, if desired. (However, try not to use more than 4 notes, otherwise, they tend to feel a bit gratuitous).

Writing Your Own Motifs

So now that we know some basic theory behind quality motifs, we should probably talk about how to actually come up with your own!

The very first step I recommend for trying to write an interesting motif is to spend a bit of time thinking about what you need it to do for your music. Is there a specific emotion you’re trying to convey? A particular character or scene that you need to capture? Whatever it is, make sure you take some time to think about the reason why you’re working on the piece in the first place.

Once you’ve got a good idea of what you’re trying to accomplish, start to think about what two basic parameters you think will help to best achieve that goal! Maybe you want to try a standard pitch/rhythm motif.

Maybe you want to try something different like a dynamic/timbre combo where shifts in volume and tone color take center stage.

There are no wrong answers here! The point is to just be deliberate and able to explain to yourself WHY you’re choosing the two parameters that you are! Don’t worry about the other parameters, because they’ll likely take care of themselves, no matter what direction you go in, but for now, it’s best to put your focus on just two simple ideas. This will keep you from getting overwhelmed by too many options, and give you a bit more breathing room to be creative.

Once you know which two you want to go with, try considering which ways you can use them to provide internal contrast. What different dynamics do you want to use? How will you shift timbres? Which pitches can you use? Any rhythmic ideas?

Again, you don’t need to overthink it. Come up with some general ideas that you like, and think of how they can help serve the goals or purpose of your music. Once you’ve got that figured out, just crank out a few different ideas that you think could work. They don’t all have to be masterpieces, just give yourself some options and pick the one you like most. Then the real fun can start, and we can start to develop it into a melody, but that’s a topic for a future post! For now, take some time to practice what you’ve learned and get comfortable with being deliberate about your choices.

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