#1September 26th, 2010 · 03:45 PM
102 threads / 59 songs
204 posts
Canada
Lesson 21: Motifs
Alright so in the last lesson I said we would discuss lyrical forms but I've changed my mind, I think we'll save that for after this discussion. So far we've been mainly focused on the theory behind lyricism, now it's time to actually delve into something related to methods.

There is one particular technique in lyric writing that is so common and effective you can find it in more than half the songs hear. That technique is a motif. Typically in composition, a motif is defined as: "a short succession of notes producing a single impression; a brief melodic or rhythmic formula out of which longer passages are developed", this definition holds just as well in lyricism except that it's not a melodic formula, it's a lyrical or poetic formula (it still has a rhythmic element to it too though).

A motif is a line or phrase that repeats throughout the song and is usually closely tied to the main theme of the song. There are lots of lyrics that use motifs, let's take a look at some examples:

Dark Hollow - Grateful Dead (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amsrwhDFtwY)

I'd rather be in some dark hollow where the sun don't ever shine
Then to be at home alone and knowin' that you're gone
Would cause me to lose my mind.

Well blow your whistle freight train carry me far on down the track
Well I'm going away, I'm leaving today
I'm goin', but I ain't comin' back.

I'd rather be in some dark hollow where the sun don't ever shine
Then to be in some big city, in a small room, with you upon my mind.

Well I'm going away, I'm leaving today
I'm goin' but I ain't comin' back.

Here's a rather short song with a very strong motif. Each verse begins the same way "I'd rather be in some dark hollow..." from here each verse develops itself while using the motif as a jumping off point. The theme is really simple, it's about heartbreak and leaving and the motif supports that theme while providing a simple entry point for the verses.

Using a good motif can greatly simplify songwriting while helping you write better lyrics. It's sort of like creating a template for a verse or chorus so it greatly reduces the amount of writing you need to do. Motifs are also great for writing really catchy lyrics. Since a motif is going to be heard over and over, a good motif gives the listener something he can remember after the first listen. One thing to keep in mind though is that a motif is also a rhythmic device. As we discussed when we started talking about lyrics, singing lyrics imparts a rhythmic character to music as certain beats get punctuated when sung and others don't. This means that you can't always transplant a poetic motif anywhere in your song. A motif will be most effective when it's accompanied by the same music and rhythm (i.e. it's always sung over the same part, beginning/end of chorus/verse).

There's nothing that says you can't use more than one motif or that your motif can't change a little every time it's used, here's an example of just that:

Choo Choo - Diane Birch (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojUUCZfTux4)

My baby's got a cherry eye
It comes out when the moon is high
Oh, when the moon is high

Oh, my baby's got a heart of gold
But every time the sun goes low
Oh, oh, you know the love don't show

Just when I think I'm on the road to heaven
I see I'm only on the road to hell

The devil's got my baby
Somebody help me please
The devil's got my baby
I think he's really after me

Oh, my baby's got a talk so sweet
Every time the light gets weak
Oh, the promises don't keep

Thought I was riding on the train to heaven
But I'm on the choo choo straight to hell

The devil's got my baby
Somebody help me please
The devil's got my baby
I think he's really after me

Oh yeah, just when I think I'm on my way to heaven
I see I'm only on my way to hell

The devil's got my baby
Somebody help me please
The devil's got my baby
But I know he's really after me

Oh yeah, the devil's got my baby
Oh, the devil's got my man
The devil's got my baby
I know, I know he really wants me

There are actually 2 motifs at work here, one in the verse and one in the prechorus. The first motif if the "my baby" line that opens each verse. Every verse begins with some description of the author's squeeze. The descriptions change with each verse and they facilitate the rest of the stanza. The second motif is the dichotomy between heaven and hell that comes up each prechorus. Every prechorus is the same, the method of transport just changes. This is very common and effective way to use a motif. The actual idea doesn't change (i.e. thought I was going to heaven but I was going to hell) but the poetic expression of that idea does. This reinforces the theme of the motif while keeping the song interesting.

There are lots of different ways to use a motif. One thing that I find particularly useful and common in song is using a motif that builds off of some kind of wordplay. The key here is to use a motif that is only a short phrase and to place it differently every time it's used. You hear this a lot and it actually make writing lyrics really easy.

When I Paint My Masterpiece - Bob Dylan (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwtdAn0DgBI)

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece

Oh, the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum
Dodging lions and wastin’ time
Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle, I could hardly stand to see ’em
Yes, it sure has been a long, hard climb
Train wheels runnin’ through the back of my memory
When I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese
Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece

Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola
Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!

I left Rome and landed in Brussels
On a plane ride so bumpy that I almost cried
Clergymen in uniform and young girls pullin’ muscles
Everyone was there to greet me when I stepped inside
Newspapermen eating candy
Had to be held down by big police
Someday, everything is gonna be diff’rent
When I paint my masterpiece

Here we have to motif "when I paint my masterpiece" being reused differently with each new verse. This facilitates writing lyrics and at the same time, ties the whole song together under one concept - the eventual day when the masterpiece is complete. You can check out some more lyrics with these kinds of motifs:

The Shape I'm In - The Band (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAm2x-U1F_8)
Doin' That Rag - Grateful Dead (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9ZTNxx7WNI)
You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio) - Joni Mitchell (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4GqB1t4PBA)
Growin' Trade - Levon Helm (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsuJa8oSH7s)

This kind of motif generally comes at the end of a stanza. Usually a motif will either come at the beginning (like in the Diane Birch song above) or at the end and depending on when it comes will change whether the song builds up to the motif or develops from it.

Motif writing is an essential for lyricists. It allows you to write coherent, poetic, and catchy lyrics starting only with a cute pun or clever phrase. Remember though that a motif is more than just a lyrical construct, it's also a rhythmic and musical entity. A good motif is useless if it isn't placed well musically, this isn't very hard to do but it's essential, especially if you are going to lead into a motif. When leading in it's best if the music and the lyrics lead to the final line together. The music should draw tension towards the final line, you can do this either by singing the line over a dominant chord (where tension is highest) or right after one (when tension is most relieved).

To close I'll leave you with one more lyric because I've been listening to this song on repeat for the past week and because it too contains a motif.


Postcards from Hell - Wood Brothers (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kY0zAC5Xpwg)

I know a man who sings the blues
Yeah he plays just what he feels
Keeps a letter in the pocket of his coat
But he never breaks the seal

Set up in a bar room corner
Playin' for tips and beer
People carryin' on and drinkin'
You gotta strain to hear

I've seen him playin' some old cheap guitar
But he could play on pots and pans
You never heard a soul so pure and true
It's flowin' right out of his hands
He can sing sweet as a choir girl
Or he can sing a house on fire
I've seen him callin' up the angels
And use a breeze for a telephone wire

And if you ask him
How he sings his blues so well
He says
I got a soul that I won't sell
I got a soul that I won't sell
I got a soul that I won't sell
And I don't read postcards from hell

Says he came from down in Texas
Playin' out since he's fifteen
You can hear a little Chicago
And a lot of New Orleans
Hean take you on a freight train
He can take you down the alley
He can take you to the church
He can walk you through the valley

And if you ask him
How he sings his blues so well
He says
I got a soul that I won't sell
I got a soul that I won't sell
I got a soul that I won't sell
And I don't read postcards from hell

I've seen him sleepin' in a doorway
Maybe livin' outside
On his back just like a cockroach
But he ain't waitin' to die

And if you ask him
How he sings his blues so well
He says
I got a soul that I won't sell
I got a soul that I won't sell
I got a soul that I won't sell
And I don't read postcards from hell

That's all for now. Next time we'll go further into writing methods.
#2September 27th, 2010 · 11:31 AM
371 threads / 187 songs
3,357 posts
United Kingdom
AWESOME!
I really must get focused and write some songwords
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