- William Drabkin
A short musical idea, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, or any combination of these three. A motif may be of any size, and is most commonly regarded as the shortest subdivision of a theme or phrase that still maintains its identity as an idea. It is most often thought of in melodic terms, and it is this aspect of motif that is connoted by the term ‘figure’. Thus, for example, in the opening theme of Beethoven’s Sonata in E op.109 a case could be argued for either half a bar or one bar constituting a motif, though the latter interpretation would probably be favoured by most listeners, since the two pairs of notes together form an identifiable contour; the two-note members might then be called ‘cells’ ( ex.1 ).
The rhythmic motif may be defined by analogy with the melodic type: a short, characteristic sequence of accented and unaccented or short and long articulations, sometimes including rests. Rhythmic motifs may be bound up with a class of melodic ideas (probably the most famous being that in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), or they may exist as rhythmic ideas in themselves, with little or no melodic interest, for instance the Nibelungs’ motif from Wagner’s ...