Developing Melody with Motifs

Very often a large part of composition involves expanding a very short simple phrase (or motif) into an entire work. This may be just a few notes, but careful development can make a little go a long way.

Development may be achieved by thinking about unity and variety. If the motif is repeated that is unity. If a contrasting motif follows (an “answer”) that is variety. Using the different musical elements (e.g. melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre and dynamics) there are many possibilities of creating logical development. You can use combinations of exact or approximate repetition of different elements.

In composition (as opposed to arranging and orchestration) it makes more sense to start with just the three main elements (melody, rhythm and harmony). It is useful to combine repetition of one element with variations of one or more of another:

Combine repetition of: With variation of:
Melody Rhythm and/or harmony
Rhythm Melody and/or harmony
Harmony Melody and/or rhythm

In addition you can use approximate repetition, especially of melody. This is often necessary if the harmony is changing and can be done by:

  1. Repetition of the main contour of melody (shape)
  2. Repetition of selected notes of the melody (essential pitches)
  3. Repetition of melody at different pitch (exact transposition)
  4. Repetition of melody using same intervals on different scale degree (tonal transposition or sequence)


lacucaracha - demonstrating the development of a motif

In La Cucaracha the opening motif is firstly repeated then followed by an answer (motif 2). Motif 1 then appears again slightly altered to fit the harmony (motif 1a), but the main contour of the melody is retained. This is then repeated (unity – it follows the same method as the opening statement) and is then followed by the another answer (motif 2a) which combines unity and variety.

Unity is achieved by using the same rhythm as motif 2 but with different notes and intervals. There is already tension at this point due to the V7 chord. As the opening 4 bar phrase has a cadence from I to V7 on bar 4, we expect (and receive) the second 4 bar phrase to cadence at the same point. This is unity that is totally appropriate to a folk dance tune.

In Autumn Leaves the opening 4 note motif is repeated in sequence with almost exactly the same rhythm, one step lower each time. This is not an exact transposition, it is atonal transposition. The first three notes of the opening motif are the first, second and third degrees of G minor, so the third degree is minor. The first three notes of the sequenced repeat of this motif are the first, second and third degrees of F mixolydian (the scale that corresponds to F7) so the third is major.

This 8 bar A section is repeated, so that the rhythmic repetition of the motif builds tension which is release at the first bar of the B< section

Using motifs - autumn leaves


  1. Using the 8 bar La Cucaracha extract, add more tension at the final cadence by extending the second phrase (e.g. delay the perfect cadence by one bar).
  2. Add even more tension by adding a bar at this point with a different time signature.
  3. Add more tension by using more sophisticated harmony.

You will probably find that:

  1. makes the tune more interesting. The sort of thing you might use if arranging or composing a jazz piece but with folk influences, but that
  2. and (c) destroy the folk feel, and though still valid as an art composition, remove it from the realms of commercial composition.


  1. Take an existing piece of music and develop the opening motif in different ways.
  2. Take a well-known existing piece of music and develop the opening motif with an answer.

Replace the opening motif of (b) with one of your own so that the answer still makes sense.


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