We can warrant that you have heard the word ‘motif’ umpteen times in movies, poems, stories, music, dance, et al. It’s a conspicuous and recurring element that bears a significant meaning pertinent to the theme. We discuss how these recurring aspects are used to arrest our attention by understanding 5 types of motifs with their examples.
An Intro that Won Our Hearts
The signature “Bond, James Bond” catchphrase gripped the 22nd position as the historically greatest cinema quotation by the American Film Institute in its 100 Years Series.
Be it that the typical ‘damsel in distress’ or a princess completely oblivious to her aristocratic roots, motifs have always been a part of our emotional and visual journey, trying to weave threads of familiarity and meaning into our fabric of mind. A motif can be anything―right from a phrase, image, idea, action, sound, etc., that tries to involve us with the development of central theme. These elements through repetition aim to forge a specific atmosphere as well as to put together various other complex thematic elements together, so that they make sense to us as a whole. A motif is, thus, symbolic in nature that appears in a work to define the central idea of it.
Let us now understand the types of motifs used in different contexts with examples.
Motifs in Music
Motifs or motives in music refer to the fragmented or sequence of notes that try to establish a recognizable bond within a complex piece or simply within a large piece. It acts like an adhesive that tries to integrate different elements of music together as well as reinforce its structure. A musical motif can be a rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, and representational idea that is used to strengthen a subject, embellish a composition, evoke emotional responses, and convey symbolic meanings.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, where the ‘short-short-short-long’ phrase forms its first movement, which then iterates itself differently throughout the composition, giving a sense of musical unity.
Motifs in Dance
Motifs in dance are choreographic devices, which can be gestures, movements, or short phrase of movement. These choreographic movements serve as building blocks for the whole choreography. The basic motif of choreography is manipulated by repetition, inversion, ornamentation, minimization, etc., for it to be developed into a whole performance.
Folk dances start with one motif movement, which is then altered and repeated using various compositional tools as the performance progresses.
Motifs in Visual Arts
Motifs are visual elements that are repeated to create a pattern or repetition. A motif can be a singular but distinguishable element in a design or composition or can be repeated many times to form a certain rhythmic flow. Motifs can be arranged in a myriad of ways to create a visual movement. As you read this article, take a look around; you are sure to find something that has motifs on it.
Be that a stag tattoo on the nape of your neck or a scarf with daisy patterns on it or a curtain with Persian paisley motifs pattern or a vase with a Korean mask, motifs are ubiquitous.
In literary terms, a motif is an idea or element that is repeated throughout the work that serves its thematic significance. A motif could be just about anything―a phrase, a catchword, an object, color, time, weather, a peculiar character, an attribute like hunchback, and so on and so forth. These literary elements also provide a structural unity in a disparate narrative text. Literary motifs need not necessarily be quintessential to the theme of a work. Also, it doesn’t need to be explicit all the time; it can be subtle and nuanced like the way Shakespeare used light and dark motifs in Macbeth.
Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ abounds in Gothic motifs in the form of full moon, superstitions held by the kids, gloomy settings, the annihilating fire episode of Miss Maudie’s house, etc. All these motifs are significant to the events that follow, which build an uneasy ambiance for the trial episode as well as the events that ensue after it.
Motifs in Movies
Motifs in movies can be an action, idea, dialog, object, music, or a technical feature like shot angle. These motifs, however, don’t convey the core message of the movie, but help audiences understand the central idea or theme of the movie. It is commonly observed that movies are centered around the same theme. But if you look closely, even though two or more movies may share the same storyline, the way in which the story is conveyed makes it different. The themes or motifs may revolve around Man vs. Nature, Revenge, Man vs. Man, Death, Loss of Innocence, War, Love, etc.
One of the easy and distinguishable motifs is the concept of love triangle used in Alfred Hitchcock movies like The Lodger, Blackmail, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Rape, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, etc. We must say he had quite a fixation with it.