Difference Between Motives and Phrases

Question: Hi Albert,

Would you be so kind as to help me get clear on the meaning of “motive”? Also can you differentiate a “motive” from a “phrase”? I want to follow your instructions for the proper way to practice but I’m confused on these two terms. Thank you so much for your help.

– Sharon Demarte (Seattle, Washington, USA)

Albert’s reply: In music, a motive is any recurring combination of notes and/or rhythms. It’s what the composer uses as compositional building blocks to construct the piece.

A motive may be a pattern of notes, as in this piece by Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny:

Here, the following is the motive:

Czerny uses the motive throughout, even turning it upside down (measures 5 and 6).

Motives can also be rhythmic. Most often they are a combination of notes and rhythm.

The most famous motive in all of music is the “fate” motive that opens Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony:

Here, the motive is both the pitches (the descending third) and the rhythm (short short short long).

In the symphony Beethoven sometimes uses only the pitch part of the motive. Later, he uses the rhythmic motive alone, without the thirds, in the tympani.

Phrases are built from musical motives. They are complete musical thoughts, as I explained in Piano Practicing and Phrasing.

Phrases in music function similarly to phrases in language. Music is abstract, however, so they’re not perfect analogs of one another. If notes are letters and motives are words or combinations thereof, then phrases are more like sentences, or at least complete musical thoughts.

I prefer to avoid a more technical definition of phrases (which involves a fair amount of harmonic and music theory knowledge). I find that for beginning piano students, it’s best to work with familiar music, as in the lesson on phrasing mentioned above. It’s much easier to learn to recognize a phrase by ear than it is merely on paper. As you progress and your analytical skills develop, you’ll learn to recognize musical motives and phrases more easily.

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