Flexible Motifs

Motifs are the building blocks of music construction.  They help to define a theme and distinguish it from someone else’s music. Melodic, rhythmic, contours, articulation and timber all play a role in the defining of your themes.  Repetition of the motifs and the implementing of variation techniques allow our ideas to develop into strong musical identities. Contrasting motifs allow initial ideas to sound fresh once again as they return.  The more use of repetition of the melodic motifs and return of themes, rhythmic motifs, form, harmonic progressions or harmonic entities, the more the listeners attention can be brought into focus.

Expectations, delayed gratification of an expectations and the fulfillment of an expectation gives the composer or improviser tools for engaging the listener.  Too much change over too long a period of time and the average listeners attention may be lost. Expectations delayed for extensive long periods of time will put a much greater demand on the listener and once again may mean that you lose the listeners interest.  Both of these points of course depend on the listener’s musical knowledge and experience as a listener. Too much repetition with not enough variation or contrast may as a result bore the listener.

Consider for a moment contour, articulations and timber.  These elements of a motif or theme may provide a source of inspiration for varying traditional melodic motifs, linking contrasting motifs or become the seeds for new themes. As an outgrowth of what has come before, they can lead the listener into new directions. Utilized either individually or in combination, contours, articulations and timber may open up directions for your music to unfold, as you consider moving away from specific melodic, harmonic and rhythmic devices typically used to define a theme.

The shape of a contour that is repeated, possibly in the form of a sequence, will provide in time its own identity. Study Jimmy Rowles ballad “The Peacocks” for a good example strong contours.  When you focus on contour(s), the pitches of a motif, intervallic relationships and rhythm can change dramatically and yet still show a relationship to what has come before. The more repetitive and distinct the contour, the easier it will be recognized.  Consider the following motifs extracted from McCoy Tyner’s “Blues on the Corner” solo. Six distinct contours can be observed that help organize his solo. Most appear as four note groupings.  Whether consciously considered or not on his part, the repetition of these shapes cannot be denied as these contours occur throughout the solo and help define his improvisation. Having six to draw upon make their recognition less obvious to the listener. Considering the speed at which these improvisation occurs, I feel the organization of the contour motifs are sensed rather than understood on the part of the listener.



Up – Down

Down – Up

Up – Down – Up

Down – Up – Down

Articulation patterns do not really need to rely on melodic motifs, rhythms, harmony or contour. Altering of various articulation patterns over time can lead to new motifs. Use of repetition of the new alterations will allow the listener to sense the variation and organic development.

Timber motifs would not rely on melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, contours or articulations for identity. In my dissertation Kaleidoscope, based on Sebastien Japrisot’s novel “Trap for Cinderella”, many elements of music were used to define two characters whose identities were distinct. Over time the two themes, performed by the alto saxophonist, with their distinctive qualities become blurred by their combination. Timber becomes the final clue as to the identity of the main character, an amnesiac, for the listener. Rhythms from the main thematic statement have been altered to a point that they are no longer useful for determining the identity. As rhythms have been augmented in the first and last of these phrases, the contour, while present for the specific theme, is not recognizable either to the listener.

The following is an excerpt of the abstract from my dissertation that explains the role timber plays in the concluding phrases of the piece.

The organization of Kaleidoscope involves three reference pitches (B = amnesiac, C = Do, and E = Mi), as well as the three themes (Jeanne, Do, and Mi). After the presentation of themes and the saxophonist’s cadenza, a series of shifting variations reflects the amnesiac’s confusion by combining various parameters of the themes, and hence blurring our memories of the personalities that the themes represent. These parameters, which include rhythms, contours, synthetic scales (and their relation to either whole tone or octatonic harmony), and timbral indications for the soloist as either jazz (edgier or bright tone) or classical (dark rounded tone) are juxtaposed to confuse our perception of their relationship to the original state of the themes.

The final phrases reveal the soloist’s interpretation of the amnesiac’s identity through his/her application of the appropriate timbre to the concluding phrases or specific concert pitches.

Timber can also become apart of the process of revealing melodic motifs of a theme. The constant shifting of timbers becomes a motif in and of itself.  Listen to Jim McNeely’s arrangement of “The Fruit” on his CD Group Therapy to expereince how the orchestration of the timberal shifts in a pointallistic manner slowly reveals in fragments the theme amongst improvised lines. He engages the listener in discovering the the theme in a very spontateous way.

When used in combination with timber, any other parameter normally associated with a motif (contours, articulations, specific rhythmic, harmonic or melodic) become aural reference points as the composition evolves. The more distinctive the timber, the easier the aural signpost will be for the listener. This could be the sound of a trumpet in a harmon mute with a flute doubling it, a very low or high note by a single instrument that appears out of nowhere or a dissonant chord that is orchestrated the same or similar manner with each return.