Creating a Musical Motif


in Composition, Methods

Many students struggle with the very concept of improvising and believe you need to be able to create a motif on the fly. That is, create some melody or pattern instantly. It’s this idea, that its instant, which becomes a road block to improvising.

This has been and is a problem for me. I have good and bad days of trying to improvise on the fly. The bad days always occur when I’m unfocused on the theory behind the music. The good days occur when I’ve started with a structure and then allow my mind to experience what I’ve created and then allow it to flow.

Structure to Start

Let me explain it this way. If I determine a key signature, such as Eb major, I will take some time to explore the basic Eb Scale these are the primary notes that I will be working with as I start to work the chords of this diatonic harmonic system.

Starting with a simple chord progression, which may be working a ii – V – I progression or working just a I – V progression to start, I’ll work the scale at each chord. When this feels comfortable I then use the scale notes to create a motif.

This motif is a simple melodic pattern I will use as I work the chords and rhythm pattern.

Creating a Motif

Some people have an uncanny ability to create a motif which gains your attention and holds it. They can be very simple or so complicated that you miss it altogether. Keeping things simple is a great way to start.

So let’s lay down a framework that will help you create your own motifs. This is done by establishing some simple rules you can follow. Here are some guidelines to get you started.

  1. Only use the notes of the scale associated with the chord.
  2. Decide if you will use 3, 4, or 5 notes to create the motif.
  3. If you use a note outside the chord it must resolve back to a chord note. An example would be that if I play the 4th of the scale tone it will resolve back to a 3rd.
  4. Decide if you will repeat a note more than once.
  5. Experiment with a couple of rhythmic ideas. Use different time for the notes, half, quarter, eight, or sixteenth notes.

By acknowledging the rules you set out you become aware of what you will be playing and where, this gives you a structure to work in and create.

Once you have created your motif you will play it with your chord progression. When you begin to groove with it, then it’s time to expand or tweak it to add a little variety.

By starting in this way you’ll be on your way to being able to improvise on the fly as you see and hear the structure of what you’re working with.

Rhythmic Style or Motif – What First

So do you develop a rhythmic pattern or a motif first?

It only matters to what fits your purpose and need at the time.  Do both and see what works best for you in the moment.

You can work with a rhythm and find a motif to fit, this is often done when learning to improvise on a 12 bar blues pattern. Sometimes you create a nice motif and need to work on punctuating it with a rhythm that accentuates the riff.

Remember if you’re having difficultly slow it down and do a little at a time.

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