by Professor Terry Dwyer

Motivic Development

In Sonata Form and its relatives (Sonata-Rondo Form, Concerto Form) we expect to encounter a middle section called the Development section, in which one or more motives undergo “development”, i.e. new adventures, twists, transformations, and certainly moving more or less rapidly through new keys. There is nothing to stop you from writing a similar section if you wish, however I want to draw your attention to the advantages of including development at any stage of the piece. Certainly the Classical and Romantic composers did this.

In the Beethoven example above, it is obvious how the opening four-note motive is immediately developed to build up a new phrase (and the continuation goes on developing it).

Shostakovich: Opening of 10th Symphony

This is a little miracle of immediate motivic development. Bar 1 encompasses a minor 3rd: Bar 2 repeats bar 1, with the melodic steps expanded to minor thirds. The pregnant pause allows us to expect a probable repetition; but we didn’t expect the E minor opening to be followed by a repetition in G minor (a minor 3rd higher!) and we didn’t expect the continuation to use augmented note-lengths, further developing the motive. We now have a memorable theme.

Next let us explore various ways in which a composer might develop a motive. I should say “Let us begin to explore….” since the methods seem almost endless. I am going to try to present them in order of complexity, beginning with the simplest and getting more and more involved. Remember, a motive that gets developed is usually quite short because developments are by nature fluid: a long motive/theme would tend to be more static.

Methods keeping the motive intact (Comments in italics)

Change of volume } These changes do not qualify as true development;
Change of instrumental colour} in fact they are just a mild disguise.
Change of register, i.e. octave(s) displacement. Development is very slight, nevertheless may be useful in some contexts.
Change of pitch and/or key. Better than nothing.
Change of voice. A motive/theme previously in the treble will gain interest by being placed in the bass or an inner voice (the latter is harder to hear so needs to be highlighted in some way.)
Addition of new counterpoint. Or better still, using another existing motive as counterpoint (if they fit!).

Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in G minor illustrates methods 5 and 6:

Wagner: Mastersingers Overture combines three themes, all previously heard in the treble register (the very first theme is now in the bass):

Methods keeping the rhythm intact
7) Repeat the motive exactly. Not too useful.
8) Repeat in sequence. One of the most useful devices in all music, certainly much used in development. Two kinds: a) diatonic, i.e. move up or down (usually a step) staying within the key: this changes some intervals automatically. b) real, i.e. use chromatic notes so as to preserve the original intervals exactly: this can change the key.

Elgar: Introduction and Allegro (diatonic sequence)

Beethoven: Eroica Symphony (simplified) (modulating sequence)

9) Change one or more of the melodic intervals, e.g. a leap of a 4th can become a 5th or even octave. A step may become a 3rd. It is remarkable how the motive is still recognisable when treated this way.

Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture

10) Melodic inversion (up for down etc) This can be done diatonically, i.e. no need to preserve the exact intervals.

Brahms: A German Requiem

Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (free inversion)

11) New melodic outline, either partial or complete. This underlines the fact that a motive’s identity lies more in the rhythm than in the pitch.

Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite

Methods keeping the pitch intact

12) Slight alteration of rhythm

Mussorgsky: Night on the Bare Mountain

13) Rhythmic alteration changing position of accents

R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel

14) Augmentation

Saint-Saens: Organ Symphony

15) Diminution

Saint-Saens: Organ Symphony

Change of both pitch and rhythm
This merits the name development only if the listener can perceive the relationship between the two versions.

16) Gradual metamorphosis i.e. the listener is shown the process.
See development section of first movement of Sibelius’s 2nd Symphony (too complex to show here). Various fragments of former themes are gradually fused together to make a new theme.

Since not all readers may be able to study the Sibelius, I quote here an example from one of my own works. Motives A and B have already been established early on. The process below (taken from a development section) shows how one gradually transforms into the other by small changes (each new version is repeated a few times before proceeding, and various keys and registers are used.) Everything is transposed to the key of C here for easy reference.

17) Sudden metamorphosis The listener is simply presented with the result.

Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture

One might explain that the first part of the original re-appears as the last part of the developed motive (minus one note), and the falling fourth which ends the original now starts the developed version. But…. does the listener really know this when it first hits him? Mendelssohn immediately repeats the new version five more times; maybe he thinks that gives us time to work it out.

18) Decoration by additional shorter notes. This is variation rather than development, though if it is rudimentary it may be classed as a “variant”, which is on the borderline between variation and development.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

19) Condensation
This is a way of shortening a motive by stages. State your motive, maybe repeat it, then play half of it a few times, then a quarter, etc. until things have gone far enough. This is how Beethoven does it in his D major Sonata, Op.28:

And this shows how he quickly reduces a four-bar motive to a single note in his 5th Symphony:

Normally this method produces a gradually rising tension, but here, by choosing a long note, Beethoven produces the opposite: relative calm, ready for his next drastic change.

Dvorak does things even more quickly in the finale of his New World Symphony:

Further Advice
  1. In most of the above examples, I give only one instance of the developed form of the motive, but in practice this will normally get repeated several times immediately, probably changing pitch, key or register, and probably moving to another instrument in the process. In a “development section” it is expected that things change rapidly. However, in the case of a theme’s statement and its immediate development, the situation will normally be much more stable.
  2. I have given no examples of canonic or fugal treatments because, although they are perfectly valid in almost any situation, they demand skilled techniques which I am not assuming here.
  3. What are the rules for motivic development? There aren’t any. New methods can always appear. The main thing to remember is that the motive must still be recognisable in the new version.