What are the most elementary techniques one can implement in a motif? Techniques for creating contrast, tension, ambiguity or some other "quirk" to make a motif more unique.

By a "motif" I mean any short repeating pattern of notes. Please accept this definition for my question.

By "the most elementary techniques" I mean techniques not related to (specific) time signatures, specific notes, scales, chords and rules of musical composition. Techniques understanding or noticing which requires the absolute minimum of music theory (or no theory at all). The notion of elementarity is really crucial for my question, so I'll try to clarify it with examples.

Example 1

The Next Episode by Dr. Dre, first 5 seconds. Piano cover (look at the left, blue notes). The main motif is just two repeating notes. But one of the notes is way shorter than another. So, the motif can be said to emphasize the contrast between the durations of the notes.

Here's a couple of similar examples, but more complicated:

  • King Of My Castle by Tiger Hifi (first 20 seconds). A single note is hit, but it produces multiple echoes. So, there's a contrast between the initial note and its multiple echoes.
  • Agent Orange by Depeche Mode, 0:15 - 0:38. Emphasizes the contrast between multiple notes (or echoes of a single note) and moments of silence (or sustain).
  • This piano version of Crystal Castles' Kerosene really emphasizes the contrast between note durations. Even a person clueless about music theory will notice that the music has sounds of very different durations played in quick succession or simultaneously.

Example 2

Amo Bishop Roden by Boards Of Canada, e.g. the first 25 seconds (a piano cover, look at the right hand). Also Yume Nikki Ending (a piano tutorial). In both cases the main motif is played 1 note at a time, except for a brief moment where 2 notes are hit at the same time. This adds an elementary contrast to the motif.

The Avalanches Electricity (Dr. Rockit's Dirty Kiss), first 25 seconds, shows another very simple way to create an ambiguity. We mostly hear just a single instrument and the amount of notes it plays per second changes pretty drastically (1 note per ~6 seconds, 1 note per ~3 seconds, 4 notes per ~2 seconds), creating contrasts.

Example 3

I'll finish giving examples by giving a couple of more complicated examples which, nonetheless, still require the absolute minimum of music theory.

Panic Attack by Dream Theater (a guitar cover with the score sheet). There's a 16 note motif with a subtle change in the last 8 notes. Sometimes that change is emphasized with a sharp note (10th note). Other times it isn't (10th note isn't sharp). This creates a very simple contrast.

Piknik - Be Forever (first 30 seconds). We have a ~3 note motif played with pauses. But the notes change pitch (it can be seen in one guitar cover: fingers move higher and lower). The change of pitch creates an elementary contrast. Also, there are additional contrasts created by echo, flanger, and moments of silence/sustain.

Why I think that my question may have an answer

Ostinato. Riff. Lick. Vamp. Hook. There's a lot of terms for describing short patterns.

Call and response. Verse–chorus form. Sound effect based techniques. Broken chords (e.g. arpeggios). Tremolo. Sequence (related question). There's at least a couple of terms which describe musical techniques with minimum of music theory.

So I figured that there may be terms for techniques implemented in very short musical patterns.

Actually, some of those terms (tremolo, sequence, sound effect based techniques) would fit as a part of an answer to my question. They are simple techniques which can be understood with very little of music theory.

Why I think that my question is not too broad

You may be concerned that my question is too broad. Asking to list any technique which changes any element of a motif. But remember that there's two limiting factors:

  • The techniques I'm looking for should be explainable without much of music theory.
  • The techniques should be implementable in a motif as short as possible.

So "polyrhythms" and "metric modulation" are worse answers than "tremolo" and "sequence", because identifying different rhythms and pulse rates requires more music theory / a better ear than simply noticing a repeating note or changing pitch. I'm looking for the latter kind of techniques (tremolo, sequence), not the former (polyrithms, metric modulation).

"Change in melody", "change in rhythm" and "change in harmony" are probably not the techniques I'm looking for either. Unless those techniques can be implemented in a very short motif, noticed by an untrained ear and conceptualized without much music theory.

EDIT. Why I started a bounty: I updated my question based on the feedback, but since then there were no answers or more constructive feedback. OP contains examples how to answer the question. If you see something wrong with the question, please explain it.

  • 3
    This is a hard question to understand, let alone answer. I was 314 words in before I got the perception that "ambiguity" means "it's ambiguous exactly what should be considered part of the motif." I suggest establishing this meaning much earlier instead of leaving the word "ambiguity" ambiguous (forgive me). Next: what's the actual question? What sort of answer do you hope to receive? There's a lot of describing here and not much asking. The only question I see is the first sentence, "Is there terminology." Is that really all you're hoping for? The answer to such questions is often "Uh... no." Commented Mar 23 at 13:08
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    Seems like this is a bit like a resource request. Especially if you word it like “is there discussion/exploration of this?” as in one of your comments. Resource requests are off topic. Commented Mar 23 at 16:49
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    My understanding is the aspect of motives that you’re asking about is already encapsulated in the concept of a motive itself. You don’t need another word or phrase. Also discussions of motive beyond the basics do (or should) include the notion that what is a motive in a particular example is open to interpretation. In your words, all motives are more or less ambiguous, so this is discussed in most sources that discuss motives. Commented Mar 23 at 16:53
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    I think this question needs significant refinement. All (parts of) music — frankly, all human experience — lend(s) itself to multiple responses / interpretations. Music Theory, as a general field of study, is exactly the study of how elements of music interact to produce various effects on the listener. The kind of ambiguity described here is inherent in all music and, subjective experience aside, depends on which element(s) of the music is/are considered.
    – Aaron
    Commented Mar 23 at 22:38
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    I've read the current version of the post (edit #3), and it seems like the answer to the question is "melody, rhythm, harmony", which are descriptors of the most basic elements of any motif or part of a motif. They constitute the most basic musical differences and therefore the most basic sources of "ambiguity".
    – Aaron
    Commented Mar 24 at 1:56

3 Answers 3


I would say the elementary techniques, stated in the most generic terms, would be:

  • repeat
  • change

In music theory that concept is often expressed as: repetition with variation

If you make that a bit more specific you could consider:

  • high and low
  • start time
  • duration
  • loudness

In music theory those things are called:

  • pitch
  • metrical displacement (among other terms)
  • rhythm
  • dynamics (or amplitude from the electronic or acoustical perspectives)

I really wouldn't call any of those things mentioned above "techniques", I would rather call them "parameters", or something similar. Because, the next level of detail I would go to gets into actual procedures and techniques.

In generic language you might say:

  • In order to make the development of a motif apparent to a listener, upon repeating the idea, change the motif only a little bit. This will allow the listener to recognize the various iterations as related to the original motif, but maintain continued interest from the novelty of the small changes. Any change to the motif that is too great risks loosing its connection to the original motif and spoils the effect of motif development.

That statement uses language that could be understood by someone with a high school education. There are no specific music theory terms in that statement, but it would not be out of place in a college level music theory book.

The statement can also be summarized with a common concept from music theory: balancing unity and variety.

Specific techniques can be worded generically and with music theory terms, for example:

  • Double the duration of each note, which in music theory is called rhythmic augmentation.

At this point other specific techniques to develop a motif could be named, but the original question asks just to name elementary parameters.

You could say a general rule of thumb for such techniques it to change only one aspect or one detail of a motif at a time. Too many changes at once, for example change both duration and pitches, risks the new iteration of the motif sounding like an unrelated, completely new idea.

One final thought: a small group of notes does not necessarily make a musical motif. Only when a small group of notes is treated as a motif does the motif identity become apparent. It's a subtle distinction, but an important one. I did not really hear motif development in your examples, except for the start of the one from Piknik. But even that one is questionable. It's common for a short phrase to use a repeated rhythm pattern. That doesn't necessarily make that pattern a motif. Figure and figuration might be terms to use instead. If the pattern became an integral part of the whole song, motif would then seem an appropriate description.

  • Great answer. I see you mention a lot of techniques for modifying a motif or figure. Are there techniques for creating the original motif or figure? Commented Apr 2 at 0:26
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    Usually making a motif is described in terms of choosing a unique interval or rhythm. So, a counter-example of an uninteresting motif might be four ascending scale steps with even rhythm. Such an idea could become a viable motif by altering it with an interval leap or rhythm of contrasting values. Creating the motif is the simpler task. The real art comes in manipulating the motif into a larger composition. The following chapter from Belkin is a nice overview: Belkin, Musical Composition: Craft and Art, The Motive, p.1 Commented Apr 2 at 14:51
  • books.google.com/… Commented Apr 2 at 14:51

It seems to me that the phenomenon you are talking about can be described as the contrasting content of the motif. A musical motif may be characterised by a high or low contrasting content (while you well observed that the 'motif-ness', i.e. the 'catchiness' as the motif's raison d'être, can be quite low in lack of contrasting content); plus this contrast can occur in a vast range of musical realms (register, timbre/effects, rhythmics, ...)

EDIT (Reply to OP's comment) : I'll elaborate on this with examples: The initial motif of Yma Sumac's Taki Rari can be unravelled like this (bar numbers counted in 2/4 time):

  • bars 1-3: a naked cha-cha-cha vamp
  • bar 4: vamp pauses, making space for the mallet tremolo
  • bars 5-8: repetition of 1-4
  • bars 9-11: repetition of 1-3 vamp, but exploding brass on top
  • bar 12: tremolo as in 4, but now with Sumac's voice 'mimicking' it
  • bar 13-32: various recombinations and variations of these elements.

Now, by common definiton the beginning of the first repetition marks the end of the motif. In this sense the first 4 bars are a motif with a certain contrasting content (between the vamp and the tremolo, i.e. contrast in instrument, register and note values). This motif's rendition in bars 9-12 contains even more inherent contrast, considering that there are added elements that bring in contrast simply because the listener recalls their lack in the motif's original version. This is my perception theory, I appreciate if someone likes to share a different perspective

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    "Contrasting content" sounds very interesting and relevant. Could you expand on that a bit, give some examples? Commented Apr 2 at 0:34
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    @FlowyPoosh sure I edited
    – Michel
    Commented Apr 6 at 16:31

I try to answer as someone to whom the concept of motif is still a riddle a bit, too. However, I am not an educated musician, things I hope will not be outrightly wrong never the less. I think I can cover the basics.

Do not mix a motif and a chain of notes with each being an "event" in MIDI terms. I guess from your ways of thinking you might be a computer guy, or might be a decently good programmer.

A motif may be better understood as a characteristic horizontal-vertical structure of rhythmic proportions and intervals, with the latter measured in grades of the currently underlying scale. By "currently" I mean the underlying scale in a concrete case of a piece at a position, like these you pinpointed as examples, you are being confronted with. If you are not, take it as a placeholder, a variable which value you don't know.

A motif, from a listener's view, is some bunch of tones they remember as earlier heard in the very same piece, no essential matter if it's the very same or a varied chain of temporal proportions, overall span, intervals, span of scale grades (not sure they'd call it ambitus?), and the directions of the intervals (up/down) and rhythmic proportions. In all these aspects a motif can be varied and "worked with" in the "motivic, motif development work" of a composer.

(On the metrics, this is what I dare to infer from studied literature: At the starting position, a position within the passage of a motif, but not finalizing it, a beat 1 needs to occur. If there are more than one "ones", I guess musicians would rather call it a phrase, some sub-part singers would take a breath after, or piano teachers highlight important to always exercise in one go. But take it rather as a hijacking question than as a statement.)

  • I've updated the question. "Motif" is just a placeholder word I use for my question, I did say how I define it. I want to know techniques implemented in motifs which can be explained with minimum of music theory. Commented Mar 24 at 1:56
  • You are asking musicians in the first place. You'll have them righteously shrug about your question if they feel restricted to weird ways of thinking and answering they are not used to. You'd better off translating their language to yours. Commented Mar 24 at 8:49
  • I think I managed to ask my question without inventing new languages or terms. I don't agree that my question is particularly weird or limiting. I do agree that my question comes from an unusual perspective. Is that a crime? If I'm wrong about my assessment, please explain why. I'm ready to put a 50+ bounty on my question. Commented Mar 24 at 9:27

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