Timothy's Blog

Timothy's blog on dulcimers, music, nature and life!

You can compose music from special groups of notes!

You can compose music from special groups of notes!

In music the French word motif’ simply means a group of notes that you use to start a musical composition and to refer to throughout the composition for unity.  That’s all!

Maybe the most famous example of a motif is the set of theme notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony:  ‘Di-di-di-dah’ (used in the Second World War as Morse Code for ‘V’ for victory) --- and if you listen to that matchless symphony you can hear Beethoven developing an entire movement --- with references throughout the rest of the whole work --- from that simple set of three notes, G-G-G-Eb (in the key of C minor).

Well, we don’t need to have the genius of Beethoven to use motifs for making up music!  For example, I sit down with a mountain dulcimer and play the simple children’s folk tune ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhody’ then start exploring variations of the melody for several minutes, and it becomes an almost ‘epic’ piece built on a juvenile set of notes.  It’s not all that hard --- try it!  (Or how about ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’?)  

One helpful practice while exploring out from a basic melody like this is to keep the simple tune going in your head while you purposely break away from it with your instrument.  It's sort of like playing an improvisational 'duet' with the tune that's going in your head.  (Again, this is a technique you may find easier than you think!  If you are already used to keeping a steady beat by yourself, you're probably in the habit of doing a 'duet' with a rhythm section in your head.)

I like to choose a series of notes and have it stand for something, and, although the listener doesn’t know what the notes stand for till I tell them, I can have the subject in mind as I explore ideas of developing the musical piece.

For example, when I was working on the National Parks suite to be called Such a Gift in 1995, my composition teacher Aldo Forte suggested that I have unifying thematic motifs that imbue the entire work with significance, and I came to my lesson one day and he asked me if I had a ‘God’ theme to match my goal of honoring the Creator of the natural world, and he suggested a series of notes I’d been using: ‘Let’s see, what are those notes?  A-B-B-A?’  And we both had this ‘wow’ moment realizing that the notes happened to spell an Aramaic name for God, which means “Daddy’!

Another pattern of notes I just liked was the ‘so-mi’ interval, from the fifth note of the scale to the third note of the scale, and I somewhat intuitively chose those to be my ‘National Parks Nature’ motif.  Thus when I was coming up with ideas for a melody or structure I would keep that in mind as well as the A-B-B-A motif.  And I found that it’s amazing how combining simple, seemingly random musical ideas, can lead to authentic composition.  You’ve got to try this!

Two pieces I wrote during that period became special representations of Shenandoah National Park, for whom I eventually recorded an album over the next couple of years, Here on this Ridge.  The following videos are informal performances of the result of this motif-developing process.

In ‘Spring in the Gap’ I wanted to make a banjo-like tune that had the mixolydian nature of ‘Old Joe Clark’ but uniquely fit the theme of the album --- and in the recording you’ll hear, very clearly, I hope, the A-B-B-A pattern (5-6-6-5) at the very beginning, followed later by the ‘so-mi’ (5-3) pattern upside down ('mi-so', 3-5) and in its normal 5-3 form at the beginning of the second section.  That’s exactly how this piece came to be!

And in ‘Hazel River’ I reversed the chronological order of the two motifs: first the ‘so-mi’ in the main melody, then a variant reference to A-B-B-A, then I moved on with other ideas that came to mind (and to hammers!) as I explored at the instrument.

I hope this concept will inspire you to experiment with groups of notes and apply them to your own thematic goals.  We can make music of our own!


Basic sheet music of 'Spring in the Gap':


Animals that are fans of our music
Based on what?

Related Posts


No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment

Please Note: This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

Browser settings can be adjusted to control cookies. Failure to make adjustments constitutes your agreement to their usage. Learn more

I understand

Information about Cookies

A cookie is a small piece of data (usually a text file) that a website asks your browser to store on your computer or mobile device. It enables the website to remember your actions and preferences (such as login, language, font size and other display preferences) over a period of time, so you don’t have to keep re-entering them whenever you come back to the site or browse from one page to another. Most browsers support cookies, but users can set their browsers to decline them and can delete them whenever they like. Cookies can be used to collect and store user data while connected to provide you with requested services. More information about cookies can be found at http://www.aboutcookies.org.

In addition to cookies that remember your preferences mentioned above, cookies are used for the purpose of purchasing items off this website, and for login and user profile details should you provide them by creating an account or signing up for the blog posts or newsletter.

Third party cookies are also used on this site. Specifically, Google Analytics is used on this site -- a popular web analytics service provided by Google, Inc. Google Analytics uses cookies to help us analyze how users use this site. It counts the number of visitors and tells us things about their behavior overall – such as the typical length of stay on the site or the average number of pages a user views.

The information generated by the cookie about your use of our website (including your IP address) will be transmitted to and stored by Google on servers in the United States. Google will use this information for the purpose of evaluating your use of our website, compiling reports on website activity and providing other services relating to website activity and internet usage.

Google may also transfer this information to third parties where required to do so by law, or where such third parties process the information on Google's behalf. Google undertakes not to associate your IP address with any other data held by Google.

If you have Adobe Flash installed on your computer (most computers do) and utilize audio or video players, Google Analytics will try to store some additional data on your computer. This data is known as a Local Shared Object or Flash cookie. This helps us to analyze the popularity of our media files.

Finally, this website makes use of Google Maps. Google Maps is used to provide locations for Timothy Seaman's performances. In clicking on a performance location, you can allow or deny Google Maps knowledge of your location for purposes of getting directions from your location to the event site.

You can control and/or delete cookies as you wish – for details, see aboutcookies.org. You can delete all cookies that are already on your computer and you can set most browsers to prevent them from being placed. If you do this, however, you may have to manually adjust some preferences every time you visit a site and some services and functionalities may not work.

Your failure to control and/or delete cookies for this site constitutes your acceptance of cookies as outlined above.