Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Long Form: Motif

Writing Wednesday

Watching Star Wars in 1977 (before it had any Roman numerals, back in the Early Pleistocene for you youngsters), was an amazing experience--one that's hard to convey to the generation that was weaned on photo-realistic computer graphics.

But for me, listening to the Star Wars sound track album was an even more amazing experience. I heard the story unfold in another dimension that shadowed the visual experience, complementing, enriching, and extending it. That was when I began to understand musical motifs.

A motif is, "a recurrent thematic element."

At an abstract level, a motif is simply the application of the principle that a well-developed context makes references meaningful. Put that way, it sounds pretty bland. But think of the times when you've been caught up in a story and a well-placed word or phrase triggers a cascade of associations and emotions.

In John Williams' score there are motifs--the main theme, the rebel fanfare, the imperial march, Leia's theme, etc.--that are strongly associated with certain story elements the first time we hear them. There after, the themes are quoted in other, often more complex, music for sequences like battles where the elements all come together. The quotes remind us, in the shadow dimension, of what happened when we heard the theme before and what that means for the stakes now.

A Palette of Motifs

At one point (in the Late Pleistocene*, for those of you keeping score), I thought I'd figured out how to stir-fry: chop up a bunch of vegetables, and some meat, run it through the wok, and presto. Except my stir-fry wasn't as good as the offerings in the Chinese restaurants. Then I noticed one key detail. The dishes in the restaurants had fewer ingredients that I was using. Less was more. There was more flavor when there were fewer flavors competing with each other.

Artists have long known that a picture is more vibrant with a limited palette of colors. Similarly, a palette of motifs is much more effective in a long-form work because the thematic elements must recur. Mix in too many motifs and you'll wind up with bland stir-fry.

* This is an example of a recurring thematic element.

Image: Simon Howden /

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