This post is for both teachers and students. It concludes with two suggested exercises for teachers to use with beginning composers. By the way, any piano teacher – not just those trained in composition – can make use of these fun and creative exercises!

Figure vs. Motive

Most piano music that is universally considered “great” is constructed from one or more musical units commonly known as motifs or motives. Understanding the construction of a piece is essential for any pianist who wishes to interpret it at a high level. Of course, understanding how compositions are constructed via the development and transformation of motives is also essential for learning the art of composition.

A motive is often defined as the smallest unit of musical form that possesses a unique identity as a musical idea by virtue of distinctive intervallic patterns and/or rhythm.

Surprisingly, though, the proposition that a motive is the smallest unit of musical form is not universally accepted among music theorists. (Theorists continue to argue about other aspects of musical form too, such as how to define a phrase.) In his book Structure & Style, Leon Stein suggests that many motives (as typically labeled) are further divisible into distinct intervallic and/or rhythmic units (which he calls figures). So for Stein, the figure rather than the motive is more accurately the smallest unit of musical form.

Another potentially helpful distinction to consider was proposed by philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton, who, using a visual metaphor, suggests that a motive is “foreground” (of special importance in a piece) while a figure is “background” (of less obvious importance).

With these thoughts in mind, let’s scrutinize several well-known piano compositions to see which proposition makes most sense.

Menuet in G (Petzold)

In the Menuet in G from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, now known to be composed by Christian Petzold, the main “foreground” motive is 8 notes long:

Petzold (Ex. 1)


Is this motive the smallest distinct musical unit in the piece, or could it be divided into two or more figures? In my opinion, it is clearly divisible into two figures. The first five-note figure is largely scalar and mostly eighth notes. The following three-note figure consists of a distinct intervallic pattern of three quarter notes. Together, the two figures create a memorable, indeed now famous, motive.

As the piece develops, the first figure in particular is transformed and developed while maintaining its rhythmic identity.

Marche in D (C.P.E. Bach)

In C.P.E. Bach’s lively Marche in D, the “foreground” motive consists of a quarter and half note in a descending fourth (second and third notes):

Bach (Ex. 2)


The first note of the piece is a pickup rather than an integral part of the motive, and in any event is immediately supplanted by two passing tones (B and C#) on the restatement of the motive in m. 2.

The scalar passage which follows is better described as a non-motivic figuration which connects to a third restatement of the motive (consisting of a different interval) in the fourth measure.

Verdict? The Marche’s tiny two-note motive is not divisible into smaller units (single notes don’t count as a musical unit).

Für Elise (Beethoven)

Für Elise’s obvious motive:

Beethoven (Ex. 3)


can be reasonably divided into two separate figures: (1) the first five notes (all half steps apart) and (2) the final four notes with an intervallic pattern consisting of mostly minor 3rds that is easily distinguishable from the first figure.

Prelude #7 (Chopin)

Chopin’s laconic Prelude #7 consists of one (primarily) rhythmic motive:

Chopin (Ex. 4)



The piece is developed via transformation of the motive’s intervallic patterns (its rhythm is repeated verbatim) in conjunction with the piece’s changing harmonies.

While Chopin’s motive could be theoretically divisible into two figures, the separate figures are never employed as individual units in the piece’s development, and therefore it’s easiest to consider the motive as the piece’s smallest unit.

The Entertainer (Joplin)

Scott Joplin’s enduring theme for The Entertainer:

Joplin (Ex. 5)



could be described as one motive consisting of two separate figures: the first figure being the chromatic pickup followed by the series of ascending minor 6ths (first 10 notes including ties), and the second, contrasting figure proceeding in largely step-wise, somewhat chromatic motion, with a different rhythm and richer harmonies.

But this is where it becomes apparent why music theorists still debate things like figure vs. motive. For it could also be reasonably argued that these two figures are better described as two “foreground” motives, alternating with each other in a “question and answer” format. Indeed, this is exactly what happens in the first section of The Entertainer, until the final bars when the second motive takes over the show.

Even if this is true, though, the first motive can reasonably be divided into two figures – the chromatic pickup notes followed by the succession of minor 6ths.


While no firm conclusions can be drawn from such a small sample of music, it does seem clear that some motives are complete in and of themselves, while others are clearly divisible into separate figures. Therefore I agree with Stein that the figure is indeed the smallest unit of musical composition.

Therefore in our motive vs. figure contest, the figure wins. Go figure! (Bad pun intended.)

What do you think?

Composition Exercises

An accessible and fun way to introduce students to composition is by having them learn how to write a motive. Since every motive has both an intervallic and rhythmic identity, an easy and creative way to teach motive writing is to give students a well-constructed motive from the literature (preferably one they’ve never heard) and have them compose their own motive by changing either the motive’s pitches or rhythm (but not both).

Exercise #1

Choose a famous motive from the literature. Consider whether it is composed of one or more figures. Compose your own motive by keeping the motive’s pitch sequence but changing its rhythm. Tip:  The most memorable and “catchy” motives usually have a distinct, even striking, rhythm. Explore with your student why some rhythms are more memorable than others.

Exercise #2

Choose a famous motive from the literature. Compose your own motive by keeping the motive’s rhythm but changing its pitch sequence. Tip:  Give beginners a limited number of pitches to work with at first – for example, a pentatonic or major scale (one octave only).

Share this: