Now that you have some guidelines for shaping a melody into a phrase, it would be helpful to know more about how
your melodic ideas can be extended and developed. There are specific ways that
a melodic idea can be varied while still keeping a recognizable connection with
its former shape. Knowledge of these techniques is an important part of the composer’s skill, though some of them
are often used unconsciously and can
even be found in many folk melodies.
Autograph page of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”), Allegro ma non troppo (1808)
In the previous chapter we mentioned the importance of repetition in music.
A short distinctive melodic-rhythmic fragment drawn from a phrase and repeated throughout a composition.
or motifs, are short distinctive melodic-rhythmic fragments drawn from a phrase and repeated throughout a composition. Motives can be repeated exactly or transformed
in numerous ways, providing an endless supply of melodic material. In the case of “Lightly Row,” a traditional children’s song,
the material for almost the entire melody is derived from a single motive which happens to be the first measure of the piece.
See if you recognize all of the melodic and rhythmic variations of this very simple motive:
Measure two of “Lightly Row” is an example of a motive varied by transposition Transposition An altered version of a passage or composition that is either higher or lower in pitch. A song, for instance, can be transposed to another key so that all of its pitches are either higher or lower, making it easier to sing. , whereas measure four is a variation that preserves only the rhythm and the repeated notes of the motive. In measures ten and twelve you can find a still more distant variation that discards even the repeated notes and keeps the rhythm only. Measures 9 and 11 show how a motive can be further broken down – all that remains are the repeated notes.
Movie 11.1 Melodic development in “Lightly Row”
One of the most famous motives of all time is the one Beethoven used to begin his Fifth Symphony. The motive is unusual in that it isn’t a fragment extracted from a larger phrase – it serves all by itself as the movement’s principal theme.
The motive in this case is four notes: three that repeat and one that descends a third. Immediately following the introduction of the motive we hear the same 4 note figure passed back and forth between the violins and violas (Movie 11.3).
Figure 11.1 Building the melody “Lightly Row” from a single motive
Movie 11.2 Motive from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5
Movie 11.3 Development of the Beethoven motive
This pattern, sometimes reduced to just its rhythm, appears in many different forms throughout the work. In fact, the first fifty-eight measures are built on this single idea! Below we see the motive transformed into a descending figure, first in the bassoon and then the flute. Another example of motivic transformation occurs in the closing bars of the movement, where the motive presents itself
as a cadence.
Of the many ways of varying a melodic idea the most common is the
The repetition of a brief melodic idea that is transposed either up or down with each repetition. Usually it’s transposed by a second, less frequently a third.
The tonal sequence allows the quality of melodic intervals to change according to the key (i.e., it does not use accidentals to maintain the quality of each interval).
The real sequence, unusual in tonal music, represents an exact transposition of the original pattern and will usually require the use of accidentals. , in which a fragment of melody is repeated at a different pitch. Usually the repeat is a second above or below the original:
Movie 11.4 Motivic transformation in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5
Movie 11.5 Measures 1-2 of "Lightly Row” form a sequence, as do measures 9-10 and 11-12
Beethoven uses variations of his motive to create different sequences throughout the movement. Here, the ascending third carries the sequence upward while building toward a climax (Movie 11.6):
Movie 11.6 Sequence in Beethoven's Symphony No. 5
Movie 11.7 Continuing a tonal sequence
Sequences can be carried on as far as you like, though they tend to sound silly if they continue too long. For example, three times is pushing the limit for this idea:
Notice the slight changes in the intervals of the tune in this sequence. For example, the step following the dotted quarter is a minor second originally, but a major second in the two following sequences. Similar changes are in the Beethoven example above – the seconds and thirds are sometimes major and sometimes minor. That’s because this most common type of sequence, the tonal sequence, stays in the same key and adds no accidentals. If the original goes up a second then the sequence goes up a second, but without accidentals it may turn out that the quality of the interval changes.
Less common is the real sequence, which exactly preserves the shape of the original melody by adding accidentals. This means
that the sequence will soon move into other keys, which may not be desirable. Movie 11.8 shows how the same melodic segment
is transformed in a real sequence.
Movie 11.8 A real sequence requires accidentals and soon leaves the original key
Suggested Practica Musica Activities 11.1
• Tonal Sequencing: Practice writing tonal sequences.
• Tonal Transposition: Transpose tonally a melodic phrase.
Extracting Motives from a Theme
In most cases motives are fragments extracted from a phrase that serves as the principal theme of a larger work. The short motive from Beethoven’s Fifth is a notable exception. Let’s look at how Beethoven derives and develops motives from the theme of the first movement of his Sixth ("Pastoral") Symphony.
Once the theme has been stated, Beethoven immediately breaks it apart into melodic fragments. The three primary motives are highlighted below in different colors.
First we hear the blue motive and the yellow motive played together by the first and second violins. The blue motive is given to the second violins, while in the first violins we hear the distinctive rhythm of the yellow motive.
The yellow motive is repeated and transformed throughout the movement – sometimes as an ascending figure and other times descending, identifiable by its characteristic rhythm.
Theme from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6
Figure 11.2 Breaking down the theme into motives
Movie 11.10 Blue and yellow motives played together
Rhythmic variants of yellow motive
Early in the movement, Beethoven extends his theme by forming a sequence out of the “green motive.” Here the yellow motive in ascending form leads up to this cheerful return of the pastoral theme which has been extended by sequence:
Movie 11.11 Repetition of the yellow motive and extension by sequence of the theme
Movie 11.12 Sequence built from green motive
This idea returns in the last few bars of the movement where we hear first the violins and then a solo flute play a more developed version of this same sequence.
Beethoven has taken a brief and simple theme and used its parts to create a large and complex work. Creative use of these techniques of thematic transformation is key to writing meaningful music.
1. Motives are distinctive melodic or rhythmic fragments, usually drawn from a principal theme. Motivic transformation is the variation and development of a motive in an extended composition.
2. Sequence is the technique of developing a brief melodic idea by transposing it up or down one or more times in succession. Usually it's transposed
by a second, less frequently a third.
3. The tonal sequence allows the quality of melodic intervals to change according to the key (i.e., it does not use accidentals to maintain the quality of each interval).
4. The real sequence, unusual in tonal music, represents an exact transposition of the original pattern and will usually require the use of accidentals.
Composers aren’t obligated to follow any rules when it comes to transforming a melodic phrase. There are, however, several specific transformation techniques that provide both melodic unity and variety.
There are four regular (i.e. mechanical) operations that can change a motive or an entire melody while maintaining a family resemblance to the original. They are:
• Retrograde Inversion
For all of these transformations we'll consider only the tonal forms which are the most interesting and by far the most common. Remember that
Any melodic transformation that stays within the given key. Transpositions and inversions can be tonal or real. Tonal transformations never leave the original key and,
as a result, some intervals are a half step larger or smaller than the original. as opposed to real transformations, never leave the original key, so some intervals are a half step larger or smaller than the original.
Transposition we’ve already seen in the sequence: the melodic idea is played at a different pitch level. Some minor intervals might become major and major ones minor, but the shape of the melody is retained.
To make an inversion of a melody you substitute the corresponding ascending interval for every descending interval, and vice-versa. The motive in our example below rises two seconds and then drops a third and a fourth, so its inversion descends two seconds and then rises a third and a fourth:
Movie 11.13 Tonal inversion
Suggested Practica Musica Activities 11.2
• Tonal Inversion: Practice writing tonal inversions.
Composers rarely use an exact inversion of a motive. They make slight modifications as needed. In the example below,
for instance, Brahms takes the opening theme from the last movement of his second symphony and applies inversion to
just the first few notes. Although not exact, its an easily recognizable inversion of the original figure.
A type of melodic transformation that reverses the pitch order of a theme or motive. The last note becomes the first note and so on. Sometimes only the pitch order is reversed; sometimes the rhythm is reversed as well.
A retrograde inversion is a variation that’s both backwards and upside down. A composer takes the inversion of a melody and reverses the pitch order. variation is the reverse of the original theme
or motive. It’s played backwards. Sometimes only the pitch order is reversed; sometimes the rhythm is reversed as well.
A retrograde inversion is a variation that’s both backwards
and inverted. You may recognize this retrograde segment of
a well-known tune (Movie 11.15).
Two Types of Rhythmic Transformation
There are also regular changes that can be made to rhythmic patterns. Like the regular transformations of pitch patterns, these rhythmic transformations produce a variant whose connection with the original is easily recognized.
Rhythmic augmentationA type of transformation in which the note values of a theme or motive are increased by the same proportion — for example, doubling their values. Rhythmic diminution transforms by reducing values.
refers to the increasing – usually doubling – of each note value – a quarter note becomes a
half note and so on. In the opposite, rhythmic diminution,
each value is reduced. As you might expect, the former
results in a motive that sounds stretched out and the latter produces a more accelerated version. If we were to apply
these techniques to Beethoven’s motive the results would
be as shown in Movie 11.16.
Inversion in Brahms Symphony No. 2
Movie 11.15 Retrograde and retrograde inversion of a portion of "yadhtriB yppaH"
Brahms uses rhythmic diminution and augmentation as part of his thematic development in the first movement of his Fourth Symphony. Unlike our hypothetical Beethoven example, the variation here is much freer – the rhythm is halved, but the melody
is changed, or the theme is stretched out even further by sustaining the third whole note over three measures (Movie 11.17).
The regular transformations can be combined with free transformations, in which pitch and rhythm are varied in less
A common type of free transformation, which we’ll call
elaboration Elaboration The addition of decorative notes to a melody. , is the addition of extra notes to the melody.
Decorative notes are added by dividing larger note values
into smaller values. Sometimes all of the original pitches
are retained, but not necessarily. You may have more
trouble hearing the Beethoven motive in the example
to the right (which he did not write).
Movie 11.16 Regular rhythmic transformations applied (by us) to Beethoven’s motive
Movie 11.17 Rhythmic diminution and augmentation of
the theme from the opening of Brahms Symphony No. 4
Movie 11.18 Our elaboration of the Beethoven motive
Reduction and Expansion
Altering the length of a motive is another transformation technique. Motives can be either reduced or expanded. Beethoven uses these techniques to great effect in his Fifth Symphony. At one point he takes the three repeated notes
of the original motive and appends another melodic idea
to it. This extended version of the motive is dramatically introduced by the french horn (Movie 11.19).
Soon afterward, Beethoven does the opposite: he shortens
the motive by reducing the three repeated notes to just two. This rhythmic variant produces a syncopated effect in the example shown below.
Movie 11.19 Expansion of the Beethoven motive
Movie 11.20 Reduction of the Beethoven motive
Movie 11.21 Beethoven combines two transformations of his motive
Finally, he puts the two variations together! The strings play the extended motive while the winds take turns with the shortened fragment.
Movie 11.22 Motivic Transformation Summary
These regular and free transformations of a familiar motive illustrate how composers can use transformation techniques to produce a great deal of music from a single idea.
Suggested Practica Musica Activities 11.3
• Composition: Provides tools for writing music in multiple parts.
1. The regular transformations are ways of mechanically changing a tune or a rhythm while maintaining a clear relationship to the original.
• Transposition repeats a pitch pattern at a
higher or lower starting point.
• Inversion changes the direction of each interval in the melody. A rising third becomes a descending third.
• Retrograde reverses the passage.
• Retrograde inversion both inverts and reverses.
2. Regular transformations of rhythm include augmentation, in which each note is increased in value by the same proportion, and diminution,
in which the note values are all diminished by the same proportion.
3. Free transformations of a melodic idea include elaboration, reduction, and expansion.