Motivic Transformation: Definition, Methods & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How can you keep a musical theme integrally tied to a composition without making it boring or redundant? Let's take a look at motivic transformations and see how they can be used to do just this.

Motivic Transformation

Music and crime have a few things in common. They both frequently involve a generous amount of borrowing without permission, they can both elicit a strong emotional response, and of course, the key to understanding both is finding the motive.

Of course, in music this means something very specific. In compositional terms, a motive is a short musical idea, defined by a specific rhythmic or melodic phrasing. The motive is a key idea in the composition, so it's generally presented in an attention-grabbing way near the beginning, and reappears throughout the piece. However, just as with crime, nobody remembers boring music.

So, how do you build the motive into your composition without making it overly repetitive? You change it just enough to make it interesting, a technique known as motivic transformation.


So, how exactly do you go about transforming a motive just enough to keep the composition interesting, but without turning it into an entirely new musical idea? First, let's create a simple motive: a half note followed by a quarter note and two eighth notes. For now, we'll assume that these notes are all the same pitch.

Here is our basic motive. Try and alter it with each kind of motivic transformation.

So, how can we play with this? The first, and perhaps simplest, technique is repetition. Repetition refers to an immediate repeating of the motive. We'd play the half note, quarter note and two eighth notes, and then play the exact same thing again. This can be interesting because we don't expect to hear the motive reappear so immediately, but be aware that overusing this technique can ruin the effect pretty quickly.


Now let's start changing that motive in small ways. One popular form of motivic transformation is augmentation. This technique is sometimes referred to as multiplication because we are going to multiply the length of each note, thereby extending the motive.

Let's see this in practice. Our motive is a half note followed by a quarter note and two eighth notes. If we augment this by doubling it (or multiplying it by two), we double the length of each note. Now the motive is a whole note, a half note, and two quarter notes. Augmenting the motive draws it out and gives it a more open feel, while still keeping it familiar.


With augmentation we multiply the motive, but we can also divide it. A motivic transformation of this kind is known as diminution or division. Instead of doubling the motive, an example of diminution would be halving it.

What would that look like with our motive? Rather than a half note followed by a quarter note and two eighth notes, the diminutive transformation would be a quarter note followed by an eighth note and two sixteenth notes. Everything has been reduced by half. As with augmentation, diminution only works if every note is changed by the same degree, in this case by half.

This is the diminution of our original motive.


Perhaps you want to bring your motive back into a composition, but you want to do so in a somewhat sneaky way. The best way to do this is to perform the motive in some unexpected way. How about in reverse? That's a motivic transformation known as retrograde.

Can you imagine what a retrograde transformation of our motive would look like? Start with the motive, and just write it backwards. In this case, that would appear as two eighth notes, a quarter note, and a half note.


So far, our motivic transformations have all used the exact same notes as the original motive, but this doesn't always have to be the case. We can also transform the motive through extension, also known as addition. As the name implies, we're going to extend the motive of a half note followed by a quarter note and two eighth notes by adding another note to the end of it, perhaps another quarter note.


If we can add to a motive, then obviously we can subtract from it as well. Truncation refers to the removal of the last piece of a motive, cutting it off before the expected completion. In this case, we'd take our motive and truncate it to a half note, a quarter note and an eighth note, removing that last eighth note. This can be an interesting way to keep the motive in the composition while still keeping it interesting, since the audience begins to anticipate the conclusion that was truncated.

A truncation of the motive.

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