I read in many books/teachings etc. that the first step for creating a melody is to come up with a motif, and use that for further development. Are all melodies created like that? I hear melodies that I like which have recognizable motifs, and others that don't (or their motifs are somewhat hidden).

The motifs I tend to write, are not anything special. Since they should be small (according to the resources), I can't seem to come up with something interesting with 2-5 notes. So I am not sure if I should spend time developing these somewhat random, boring things!

Lately I read (only the melody chapter) of "Music Composition for Dummies". It seems to separate motif based melodies and phrase based ones.

Often a composer’s entire body of work belies a tendency towards melodic long-windedness — using long, elaborately developed phrases — whereas other composers are more at home with shorter, choppier motifs.

So, the choice to use or not use motifs, is a matter of choice or style rather than a kind of 'prerequisite' for all melody?

  • 2
    Motifs are much more common in improvization (and film scores) than in song melodies, though they do occur there. Motifs were very common in Baroque and Classical times, though.
    – ScottM
    Jul 19, 2018 at 13:47
  • It almost seems like the author you've quoted has a prejudiced view in favor of the short motif.
    – user50691
    Jul 19, 2018 at 23:58

5 Answers 5


Sol Sol Sol Me....

Fa Fa Fa Re....

Those four notes are exceedingly boring. But just have a listen to Beethoven's 5th symphony! The first movement is built almost entirely off of this motif, and it is far from boring. As a matter of fact, this motif comes back throughout the entire symphony (the third movement's "Duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh, yah da da da," comes to mind).

It's gorgeous.

So I am not sure if I should spend time developing these somewhat random, boring things!

Why not? Part of the brilliance of motifs is starting with something fairly simple, and developing it in a beautiful new way, so that you recognize them later on almost like actors you've seen in a previous movie in a new role.

However there are countless beautiful melodies that are written seemingly out of a moment of sheer brilliance and inspiration, and those can also be gorgeous. Very simply, it depends on what you want to achieve.

The second movement of Beethoven's 5th symphony starts with a beautiful, flowing melody that is probably my favorite in the whole symphony. While you can see some patterns in it, it is far from the very motif-y method employed in the first movement.

A master of both was Brahms, who in my opinion wrote some of the most beautiful melodies in history. His first symphony is a study in pretty melodies. The famous melody in his last movement (Sol Do, Ti Do La, Sol) is in sharp contrast to the trio in his third movement (Which is some of the most brilliant development of a motif that I've ever heard, it's lovely, listen to it now)

Neither technique is better or worse. From what you quoted of the For Dummies book, it sounds like the author doesn't disagree. At the end of the day, it depends on what you want to achieve.

  • Re- Beethoven's fifth. Me isn't there. It's me bemol. Wouldn't be minor with me.
    – Tim
    Jul 20, 2018 at 7:11
  • @Tim I'm no solfége expert -- I just typed what I heard there -- but I've never heard of me bemol. Isn't "Me" a minor third away from "Do"? Jul 20, 2018 at 15:12
  • @Tim is it also possible that Mi and Me are getting confused? Jul 20, 2018 at 15:23
  • It is more than possible! It's what's happened. I apologise. Mi is the major 3rd, and Me or Ma is the minor 3rd. Trouble for me is that whilst they sound the same (while spoken, not sung!) they actually mean different notes. Something else learned. It's not even intuitive - me/ma= m3, mi= M3...Thanks! And bemol is flat. Playing with a French band, I get asked to play 'si bemol' for tuning (Bb). Comes over as 'C bemol', which would be nonsense!
    – Tim
    Jul 20, 2018 at 15:54
  • 1
    I edited the comment, with more confusion!
    – Tim
    Jul 20, 2018 at 16:00

The first thing you must internalize is there are no rules! You will notice this is widely said in this website. So, answering you last question, it is totally a matter of choice or style. Melodies can be created in various ways, and I'm sure most of the times not by applying any formulas. I think you should interpret those books and teachings as guidance for you to come up with your first melodies, not as rules, nor prerequisites.

For beginners, or people with no intrinsic talent (like you and me), it is very hard to compose a melody from scratch. Therefore, those tips can be very useful. Though, I believe most great composers just do it naturally, without following any steps.

About the motifs you write: one motif alone will never be interesting, but what you will do with them. And maybe you don't even need to develop a random motif first. You can come up with a melody, identify a motif in it, and use it to develop the next parts, perhaps.

So, there are no rules nor prerequisites, it's always a matter of choice. You can follow some advice as a starting point, but eventually you should have your own style and "steps" for composing melodies.


Not to belabor the point but... There are no rules, and... You don't have to do anything.

Having said that, the motif approach can be very powerful. The point is that complex ideas are built from simple ideas repeated. Repetition is a common theme in music, art, dance, comedy, architecture, etc. It can be compared to a fractal, a large and complex "thing" that seems to have a pattern and yet is covered in complexity in all directions. Upon closer examination the wild intricacies are a repeated common patter that is present in the larger grand design.

By its nature music is cyclic (at least western music) so any method you use to develop melodies would likely result in a repeated 'motif'. If you are not pleased with your own 2-5 note ides just give it time. Some of the greatest and most memorable pieces have simple motifs like this. The motif has to be moved through the various positions within the key to create movement. One of the most common in classical and modern music is to take a pattern on I (the tonic) and repeat it on the IV (sub-dominant), then back to I and etc, etc. Another embellishment on the 2 note theme is phrasing and placement in time. A couple examples from Jazz are All Blues by Miles Davis and Groovin High by Dizzy. The opening riff in GH is 2 notes repeated over 2 bars. Very simple. This motif is repeated then moved to another chord. Give that a try with your ideas before throwing in the towel.

There is nothing that says you need to follow this paradigm. In developing solo ideas in Jazz the motif approach is often used to develop a vocabulary of licks that will mature and evolve over time. You may be surprised at how much mileage you can get out of one lick if you are willing to explore many possible embellishments of that lick. And when you start transcribing other music you may realize that there is underlying simplicity in what seems to be an intricate and complex musical adventure. But if you are composing a piece for a band or orchestra you may be inspired by a rhythm, or you may be trying to create a feeling, etc. Inspiration comes how it comes, no reason to insist on a 2-5 note theme.

As for "being small", there are musicians that create 27 note (and beyond) motifs (that is a non repeating musical line that never seems to end, but does and repeats).


You don't HAVE to do anything. But if we're thinking 'melody', it's very likely there will be repetitions, inversions, modifications etc. of some melodic element. You could almost say it's what makes a series of notes BE a melody.

There are other ways to make a song hang together. But I can't think of any that don't involve repetition/modification of SOMETHING, whether a rhythm, chord sequence or something else. Otherwise how does any particular bar of music belong in THAT song, not some other one?


Motif and phrase-based melodies will have different qualities, so you need to consider how you want it performed. A phrase-based melody will, by nature, have a more cantabile quality to it, but it is impossible to play the motif from Beethoven's 5th cantabile without it sounding like a silly caricature.

When choosing how to approach writing your piece, you need to think first of what you are trying to communicate and what the overall mood will be. Use these aspects of your ideas to determine which type of melody is best to use. If you want something that has a very percussive quality to it, the motif will work better because the short groupings of notes can be separated, creating more accent. For slow, lush pieces, phrases often work better, though motifs can be intelligently developed to create a longer phrase with the same result.

Tempo, rhythm, and articulation are part of the process, too. In my own mind, melody, tempo, rhythm, and articulation are all part of one unit that comes together at the same time as I think about what I am trying to say with my music.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.