Varying Motives in Music Composition

There are numerous ways to take a musical motive, a melody of 3 or more notes, and change it to create interesting variations in structure and sound.

We will begin with a melody in 3/4 time, key of C.

Original Motive/Motif

A motive or motif is a sequence of three or more notes that creates a melody. Compositions may have several motives in one piece or may only have one that is modified in countless ways. Let’s start with an example of our primary or original motif.


[pdf-embedder url=”” title=”Motive Variations I – Score”]

Listen here to the audio file:

How can we change the motive to expand the compositional palette?

There are melodic, rhythmic, dynamic and other techniques to create variations and increase your compositional choices.

Rhythmic Variations

Let’s start with rhythmic changes:

  1. Augmentationthe timing of a note or notes is increased.

In this example, I’ve added a dot to the quarter note. It augments the time that note is held by an eight note. So the note is held for 1 and a half beats. I’ll discuss what happens to the D in the next segment, Diminution.


[pdf-embedder url=”” title=”Motive Variations II – Score”]

Listen here to the audio file:

The composition has already become different with this one modification.

2. Diminution: On the contrary, shorten the note’s length to make a variation. In example 1.B, the D note in measure 1 has consequently become shorter when the C note was augmented.

3. Elision: There are two types of elision. The first is the omission of notes which changes the rhythm of the original motive. The second involves overlapping two phrases so that the beat is not as strong on the one beat as the original motive.

The first type is omitting notes. These notes are replaced by rests. It may change the pulse from the original motive.

1.C [pdf-embedder url=”” title=”Motive Variations III – Score”]

All changes were made on the last measure. The B note in the Treble clef is replaced by a quarter rest and the G note in the Bass clef is tied over from the previous measure. These two changes completely removed the rhythmic pulse from the first beat of the last measure.