As part of my guitar practice routine, I work on a rotating schedule of practicing Melodic Patterns. And when I'm studying music theory and analyzing a particular song, part of that analysis includes noticing any repeating patterns we usually refer to as motifs. My Question is, for all intents and purposes are these patterns the same thing just going by two different names?

  • 3
    Motif literally means "pattern" in French.
    – ApplePie
    Jun 13, 2020 at 0:19

3 Answers 3


In my experience they're basically the same idea, but they're used in different environments.

Ultimately motives (or motifs) and themes are types of patterns, but typically motive/theme are used for "actual" compositions. But when we have a technical study (=etude) with a one-measure unit moved up and down chromatically, my experience is that we don't give that unit the title of motive/theme but rather refer to it as just a "pattern."

But honestly, my sense is that this usage isn't universal. Nor is it necessarily consistent: we might say a Hanon piano etude uses a "pattern," but when we get to someone like Chopin, who really turned his etudes into bona fide compositions, we might be more inclined to call his material actual motives or themes instead of mere patterns.

  • Motive is a reason for doing something and is entirely different from motif. For example: my motive for going jogging is to get fit and lose weight. Jun 12, 2020 at 14:41
  • @Brian Towers- In my studies, I have seen both words used to describe the same idea and I'd hazard a guess that both words were based on the same word of origin, perhaps Latin or Greek. Jun 12, 2020 at 14:52
  • 1
    In one of my first contributions here I wrote motive and then I was corrected by the community: motif! Maybe both exist in English, maybe one is British and the other American spelling. Do you hear an difference between each other? Jun 12, 2020 at 15:25
  • I'll let the Oxford English Dictionary decide: Motive, 2. A motif in art, literature, or music. "Then think about the grail motive as a background to the Bruckner Adagio."
    – Richard
    Jun 12, 2020 at 15:28
  • I've always called it a motif. But on the other side of the pond, I believe it's called a motive. Probably not even English at all...
    – Tim
    Jun 12, 2020 at 17:45

Motif or motive:

In German we have only one spelling: motiv. The term comes from movere and is also related with motor and motivation. It keeps the music processing.

I try my own definition (psychologically analyzing):

Pattern and motif can be used identically. Motif is the smallest melodic identity. A set of motifs is a theme.

I think with motif we are meaning the semantic aspect (content) while with pattern we are referring to the syntactic aspect (structure, form).


Motif has a pretty clear meaning. It's a short melodic unit, one or two beats, or a bar.

This labels some motifs in Bach's Invention No. 1...

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A motif gets transformed in various ways...

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...those are passages from the invention, you can see the motifs inverted, rhythmically augmented, fragmented, concatenated, etc.

I think a related concept that you may want to know about is Fortspinnung. "Spinning forth." Basically, the idea is generating an whole work from a motif like the in the Bach example above. I think an important part of the idea is the feeling on continuous flow. The work will have formal sections, but the constant flow hides the edges.

Pattern seem more generic to me.

Melodic sequence comes to mind as a specific kind of patterning. The scale (size) of sequence is larger than a motif and harmony in sequence is often clearly implied and predictable in a way that is unlike spinning out a motif.

Harmonic/melodic skeletons (prototypes, schemata, etc.) are another kind of pattern. Unlike motif and sequence this treats the melodic pattern abstractly. Rather that a concrete series of notes to manipulate the prototype is a rough outline which can be realized with many, many different melodies.

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That prototype underlies the opening melody in this Mozart piano sonata...

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Here is another Bach invention passage...

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...it combines all three pattern types. The red highlights the invention's motif, it's given a melodic sequence treatment, and the notes in green show a prototype outline of a descending line from tonic ^1 to the dominant ^5.

In casual use melodic motifs and melodic patterns might be used interchangeably, but I think it would be good to distinguish the motif/sequential type which deals with concrete, surface level detail from the abstract, deep structural pattern. Regardless of what you call them both pattern types are important aspects of melody.

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