From my research online it seems that most are talking about melodic motifs/motives in order to develop an improvisation or composition.

But in other articles about improvisation I read people usually start off with a chord progression and then write a melody over it.

But I'm confused. Is the chord progression considered a harmonic motif? (Or maybe the bassline is?) Is it better to start off with a harmonic motif before a melodic one?
Here's an example of developing a melodic motif

4 Answers 4


Included in the typical definition for a motive (or "motif") is that it is something that recurs with some frequency later in the composition (this includes the development of said motive).

In this sense, a chord progression could be considered a particular type of harmonic motive depending on how it returns throughout the piece. Typically, though, if the repetition of a chord progression is only due to the repetition of a section of the piece (e.g., the chorus of a rock song), we don't typically think of that as a motive, because the repetition is less about the chord progression and more about the formal unit. If, however, you're dealing with something like a chaconne, where the entire piece is constructed off of a repeating chord progression or bassline, then said progression can typically be considered a motive (though we usually use the term "ostinato," which just means "something that repeats").

Some composers, like Richard Wagner, have managed to create a motive out of a single harmony. In this spot in Die Walküre, for instance, Wagner uses a Dm add6 (or bø65) that returns in various guises to suggest "misfortune."

As for "Is it better to start off with a harmonic motif before a melodic one?", that's completely subjective, and different composers/theorists have different opinions.


Pieces come from all angles. Sometimes they are born ready-made with melody and chords. Sometimes a melody has been kicking round for ages, waiting for the 'right' chords to go under it. Sometimes a chord sequence sounds good, and it spawns some notes which fit over it.

There is no right or wrong way, no better or worse way. Even songwriters who have dozens under their belts won't have used the same formula for each and every one. There is no point in looking for a magic formula - good songwriters just spout out good songs, possibly comparable to hens laying eggs. Maybe they don't know why, but it works - with many different processes on the way. If there was one sure-fire formula, I expect everyone would be using it, and music would probably go down a spiral into dross. Glad it can't.


I think you've put your finger on the difference between jazz-based improvisation over a chord sequence and free composition using and developing a mixture of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas.

They can overlap. A jazz soloist may well take a melodic phrase which fits over more than one chord (when done ad nauseam he'd call it a 'riff'). Even better if that phrase was related to the original melody of the piece.

My pet peeve is when a jazzer goes straight into improvisation without first presenting the original melody. I know HE may be so familiar with it that he feels it can be 'taken as read'. But not all of his audience will be.


As a truffle hound roots around after fungus so the ear hunts melody. And it will find melody in a chord progression if the rhythm is of sufficient interest.The main theme in Joe Zawinul's 'Birdland' is at once melodic and harmonic, tied together by rhythm. That said, motivic development tends to start with a melodic motive.

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